These are strange days indeed.
When have the citizens of any nation ever believed it to be the responsibility of their government to prevent them from contracting an airborne virus? Somewhere along the way a paradigm shift took place in America, and we’re seeing the fruit of that shift today.
Communicable diseases and bacterial infections, along with the deaths they cause, comprised a familiar feature of American life not so long ago. Typhus, typhoid, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, polio, and cholera exacted their cost yearly, and generations of Americans lived and labored under the pall of disease. Death never stood far from our forbearers, and the risk of contracting a life-threatening illness loomed over everyday social interactions.
Basic sanitation, clean water, and the emergence of vaccines and antibiotics radically reduced or eliminated many common diseases of generations past, and our life expectancy has blossomed as a result, stretching from 36 years in 1800 to 47 in 1900 to 75 in 2000 to 78 today.
Whereas improved hygiene, sanitation, and waste management helped to eradicate diseases like typhus, typhoid, and cholera, and while mosquito control helped to end seasonal malaria and yellow fever epidemics, the widespread availability of penicillin beginning in 1945 and the polio vaccine in 1955 helped to usher in an era in which death from disease and infection rapidly waned. Vaccines multiplied, medicine advanced, and America forgot.
The last yellow fever outbreak in the United States occurred in 1905. Malaria is unheard of. Cholera is a third world disease. Only the WWII generation remembers suffering through scarlet fever, mumps, measles, and rubella, while only the eldest of the Baby Boomers can recall a childhood with polio. Smallpox has been eradicated worldwide for over forty years, and virtually no American child for twenty years has endured the itchy misery of chicken pox.
Americans now expect to live largely disease free. That expectation is barely seventy years old, but it saturates the air we breathe, and we have become an entitled people—entitled to health, entitled to freedom from disease, entitled to a long life, so much so that we now expect Uncle Sam to prevent us from contracting an airborne cold virus.
COVID-19 has exposed this paradigm shift.
The rise of AIDS in the early 1980s threatened our entitlement, but pharmaceutical salvation came quickly and our superiority over disease resumed. But then came SARS, MERS, Zika, and the reemergence of measles and pertussis. Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are multiplying, as are deaths from hospital infections. And now, COVID-19 has paralyzed the globe. Our mastery over nature seems less complete than it did even a decade ago.
The future will not get easier.
As strong as American entitlement to personal health has become, something older, stronger, and deeper undergirds American culture—individualism. Fierce, independent, vigorous individualism, bursting forth in every manner of self-expression and personal freedom, runs in American blood. But for generations, the ethic of Christianity tempered and shaped the average American’s use of the individual freedom he or she enjoyed, imbuing individualism with altruism, self-sacrifice, morality, and self-control. But the wane of Christianity in America has largely coincided with the rise of health-entitlement. As a result, the individualism that thrives in American culture today runs free from all fetters, having abandoned the moral and ethical constraints of prior generations. As the 21st century progresses, as new diseases emerge while old diseases reappear, as the global community becomes more global, and as individual actions increasingly affect community wellbeing, American entitlement to health and American individualism will increasingly collide, compete for dominance, and spark deep social divisions.
Already those who privilege freedom and those who privilege health stand at loggerheads. Some parents demand the personal freedom not to vaccinate their children. Others demand the vaccination of all children in the name of public health. Some students assert their right to enjoy spring break during the midst of a pandemic. Others demand that those same students forego spring break for the sake of public health.
American culture offers no solution to this impasse. But Christ does.
Jesus teaches personal freedom tempered by a deep personal responsibility to love and protect our neighbors. Jesus supports public efforts to eliminate diseases and the suffering they inflict on our fellow man, but he also teaches that the man who escapes disease today will nevertheless stand before his Creator tomorrow, for death will find us all. Jesus offers eternal health in the face of temporary health that is sure to wane. Jesus promises eternal freedom—not freedom to sin, but freedom from sin—the freedom of the sons of God, full of the responsibility to glorify God.
Ultimately, freedom and safety only coexist in Jesus Christ, and if America wants both it must first have him.