EDITORIAL: In the face of a pandemic, leave no one behind

A homeless person is treated by a Red Cross worker during the COVID-19 outbreak in Rome March 17, 2020. During his March 18 morning Mass, Pope Francis asked people to pray for all victims of COVID-19, including the health care workers who sacrificed their lives caring for others.  CNS photo/Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters

The COVID-19 pandemic has all of us scrambling to keep up with an ever-changing situation. The ground beneath our feet seems to have fallen away as we all try to understand the full extent of the threat and how our lives must change to meet and defeat it.

How do I know if I have the virus? How can I be tested? Where should I go to get tested? What should I do if I find out I have the virus? Will I be among those who die from it? What should I do if I don’t have the virus? Should I lock myself in my house until the pandemic burns out? If I do that, how do I keep working so I can pay my bills? If the virus drives the economy into a recession, what will happen to my retirement plans or my job? Where can I go for help? HOW LONG WILL THIS LAST?

We watch and read news reports about Italy, where the virus has left a robust health care system overwhelmed and the death count climbing ever higher. The people of the country are confined to their homes as Italy is in a national lockdown in an attempt to stop the virus from continuing to spread.

Is that our future? We seem to be heading toward some form of that. Even the celebration of public Masses, the place where we come together as a community, as the Body of Christ, has been suspended in an effort to help stop the spread of the virus.

The lack of answers to so many questions is unsettling. But some things are coming into focus. 

Even those who initially dismissed the pandemic as some kind of media hype have come to the understanding that the situation is dire and will get worse before it gets better.

And it is crystal clear that if the situation is bad for those of us with adequate health insurance benefits and other resources, it is even worse for those who are the most vulnerable, living on the margins of our society and our economy.

We must not abandon them. It is our moral duty and our Christian obligation that no one be left behind and everyone receive the care they need.

During decades of debate over the structure of the health care system in our country, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have consistently argued that Catholic teaching supports adequate and affordable health care for everyone because health care is a basic human right, not a privilege. It is a right that rests in the God-given dignity of every human person. The bishops’ advocacy on this issue will never be more true than with the situation we Americans find ourselves in today. Now is not the time to debate health care reform, but it the time to make sure that everyone, regardless of their situation in life, receives the care they need and deserve to treat and ward off the COVID-19 virus. That will protect not only those who have been exposed to the virus or have contracted it, but those who don’t have the virus.

Adequate health care won’t be the only need we share during this pandemic. Although we are being urged to keep our social distance from those around us, we can’t turn our back on other people. We have to find ways to reach out, safely, to make sure they are getting the help they need. We have to find ways to connect with people emotionally and spiritually so our isolation doesn’t become so complete as to be debilitating. 

In a recent interview with a leading Italian newspaper, Pope Francis urged people to rediscover the importance of small, concrete gestures of affection and care toward others. “Sometimes we only experience a virtual form of communication with one another,” he said. “Instead, we should discover a new closeness, more concrete relationships made of attention and patience. … We must understand that in small things lies our treasure.”

The COVID-19 pandemic will be another test of our faith and how we live it. If we reach out to our brothers and sisters, becoming for them the face and hands of Christ, not only will our faith be strengthened, but so will the faith of all whom we touch with God’s mercy.W