NEW YORK — Addressing the world two weeks ago at the height of the global pandemic, Pope Francis paid tribute to the “forgotten people” — the grocery clerks, service industry workers, cleaners, and caregivers that are frequently overlooked yet are now keeping the world functioning.
Earlier this week, a virtual Georgetown University discussion examined how those individuals — and the tens of millions of people experiencing economic devastation from the pandemic — might best be supported by both the Church and the country in the pandemic’s aftermath.
The panel, “Life and Dignity, Justice and Solidarity: Moral Principles for Responding to the COVID-19 Economic Crisis,” was convened on Monday by the university’s Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and brought together a mix of policy experts, academics, and a community activist, with the aim of charting a path forward.
E.J. Dionne, who teaches at Georgetown and is a columnist for the Washington Post, kicked off the discussion by noting that while the government is rightfully calling for physical social distancing, he said that now, more than ever, is the time for social connection in order to ensure strong societal bonds to both get through the pandemic and to be united in the eventual rebuilding that will need to occur.
Similarly, New York Times columnist David Brooks highlighted the Catholic principle of solidarity as “an active virtue” that demands the participation of every single individual member of society. While Brooks is not a Catholic, he said that Catholic social teaching is the “most coherent philosophy that opposes a philosophy of rampant individualism” and should be relied on especially now.
The pandemic “exposes the fragmentation in our society,” Brooks continued, saying that we can’t go back to way things were before.
Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute rebutted arguments made by some of his fellow conservatives in recent weeks that the cure to the pandemic “cannot be worse than the problem,” by arguing that the economy is meant to be in service of the common good.
While the decision to shutter many businesses in order to encourage social distancing is causing economic hardship, Strain said that economic loss must be tolerated in order to save human lives. Further, he said that there is good historical evidence for workers to be confident that this is not the end of the story and the economy will rebound.
Maru Bautista who works with the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn, New York promoting immigrant-led worker cooperatives said that she hopes that the crisis will lead to a reordering of our current system, including a greater opening to the possibility of Medicare for all to expand access to healthcare.
“We need to have the courage to see new possibilities that can create a different landscape for everybody,” she told the online audience.
Although most of the panelists cautiously praised the recent stimulus bill passed by Congress as a good and necessary first step at providing economic relief, they all agreed it would not be enough to provide long-term support.
Brooks said that he would have liked for a larger percentage of the money to go toward small businesses through the form of forgivable payroll loans rather than forcing businesses to layoff employees so that they can receive unemployment benefits. Bautista said that many immigrants will still have trouble accessing the funding programs, particularly highlighting that food stamps is a critical issue to many people in her community.
Dionne concurred, telling attendees that in Congress it’s hard to pass anything that helps non-citizen immigrants, but noting that if the nation is serious about wanting the economy to take off — and if it is concerned about justice — that must be remedied.
As the panel wrapped up, the discussion moved from economic concerns to communal ones, with Strain noting that even prior to the pandemic, loneliness and isolation was one the rise in America and he feared that this would only exacerbate the problem. He said that we should be particularly concerned about mental health issues, as well as that of heightened domestic abuse, in light of the pandemic.
Brooks said that the individualism that has defined the American system for the past sixty years has “had a good run,” but that he hopes that the nation is now at a turning point toward a great reliance on community.
John Carr, the director of Georgetown’s Initiative, concluded the program, which started at the beginning of Holy Week, but painfully acknowledging that “we’re doing passion and death pretty well, but I hope we can get to resurrection.”
“This is a time to go back to fundamentals,” said Carr, “as sisters and brothers made in the image of God.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212