On the Sanctity of Human Life

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

— G.K. Chesterton

On Facebook, I recently posted an article from a major newspaper about how churches, after being so eager to reopen, are now a major source of COVID-19 cases. According the article, “More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic…” One of the comments in reaction to this post was “650 cases is not exactly a fact that makes churches a major source of cases!”

This is similar to many of the posts I’ve been seeing on social media. They tend to be along the lines of “Your chances of dying from COVID-19 are less than one percent.” Or “Subtract out the nursing-home and prison deaths, and your chance of dying is about .006%.”

This is a valid point. The numbers in percentage terms are small, and the overall effect on our society is almost negligible. By comparison, the greatest medical threat we’ve ever faced in recorded history was the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, the so-called Black Death. How many died? Estimates range from 25,000,000 to 200,000,000 worldwide. Many consider it the worst calamity humankind has ever suffered (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death). And yet, we survived. In fact, since then we’ve thrived, building the society we enjoy today. So if we can survive that, why are we so worried about COVID-19?

My concern is this suggests humankind is philosophically similar to an anthill. Ants die from various causes every day, but that’s no problem because the queen simply lays more eggs.

But we’ve been taught by our Judeo-Christian heritage that there is a sanctity of life.  Human lives are supposed to be sacred, precious, and have more value that what’s found in the garden-variety anthill. So why aren’t we more concerned with the absolute numbers of deaths?

There is such a thing as sacrifice for a greater good; it happens quite frequently in wartime. But to discount the current pandemic and resume our normal lives, and thus put lives at risk, seems to turn our values upside down. Yes, we will survive quite well even if we lose one percent of the U.S. population. But that’s still about three million deaths! That’s nothing to worry about?

So just where is this pandemic taking us, anyway?

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”

— Joseph Stalin

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