More Than the Sum of Our Points

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

I got into it with a cousin on Facebook recently. This happens every so often. I hold back, determined not to create conflict, and then I find myself typing whole paragraphs that I believe will inspire an Oh, of course! response but inevitably do not. In this case, my cousin had suggested that if we can congregate in the supermarket, we can congregate in church. That it’s our right to make our own choices about where to go and when. Those who are uncomfortable doing so or at risk should simply stay home.

I had seen the article she shared, had read its nervous postulating about the overreach of our government into our freedom to assemble and, most notably, worship. “It’s a virus, for crying out loud,” the article laments. “The people are well-equipped with deciding for themselves how best to protect themselves.”

Are they, though?

At this moment, most states are reopening, though they have not met the basic requirements of the CDC to do so. While many people are respecting social distancing requirements, scenes of hundreds and even thousands of people have spread on social media and the news: maskless sunbathers crowding beaches and pools, drinking while huddled at block parties and bars. Whether those who are populating such places do so because they think they are immune to the virus or they think the virus can’t possibly be as bad as the media say it is, one thing is true: the COVID-19 bar chart might be sliding downward, but the virus is not staying home with those of us at risk.

I want to be able to make a Target run, sing in my church, and linger over dinner at a crowded café, but not if it means endangering myself or others, or keeping this virus around any longer than necessary.

Point System

I have, like many people, promoted the #flattenthecurve idea, watched the simulations, isolated, and adopted all the usual precautions, talking myself down from paranoia. But one morning, I read that health care providers, in an effort to decide who gets a ventilator, were adopting a point system. The system, created during the H5N1 avian flu outbreak in 2008 by Dr. Douglas White, allocates points to patients, prioritizing care based on their scores.

White and an associate, Dr. Scott Halpern, released an adaptation of this system for the coronavirus pandemic: the young, strong, healthy, and pregnant get more points, and more points means a greater chance at a ventilator.

I explained a simplified version of this system to my daughters in the car the other day.

If two 30-year-olds get the virus, I said, and the doctors must choose which will get the ventilator, they will look at the charts and choose the patient with the fewest health problems. If one of those patients has a heart condition, the other patient will get the ventilator. Or if the doctors must choose between a healthy 30-year-old and a healthy 60-year-old, they will choose the younger patient because the older patient has already had more of a chance at life.

My teenage daughter scrunched up her face. “That’s not right,” she said.

I had to agree.

She knows I am neither young nor well. A few weeks into the pandemic, I learned my ovarian cancer had rallied enough to require another round of chemo. The last time I received treatment, a year ago, my heart failed, and I was intubated in an Anchorage emergency room while on vacation with my kids. I nearly died. I am 51 years old.

I have a weakened immune system. My life is likely to be shortened. I am a risk, not a certainty. If the coronavirus comes for me, those are the facts the doctors and nurses will see on my chart.

If the coronavirus comes for me, and the hospital is already overrun with cases, my caregivers will read my chart, and calculate the points, and then they will give the ventilator to someone else.

The Things You Can’t Measure

But here is what my chart does not say.

My chart does not say that I am a single mother to two remarkable daughters, aged 12 and 14, that we formed a forever family through adoption just over two years ago. The chart doesn’t say I am the one who kisses their foreheads at night, who asks them what they learned from their reading, who laughs with them over my tasteless chicken dishes and talks to them about love and God and sex and the state of the world.

The chart does not say I am a daughter, a sister, a friend.

Nor does the chart reveal that I am an English professor who mentors under-resourced young women, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, helping them find their voices as they become nurses and psychologists, authors and mothers.

The chart does not mention that I am a neighbor who checks on the children who live near me, to make sure they are doing their homework, to celebrate their birthdays with too much whipped cream and lots of sprinkles.

If you add that up, how many points is that worth?

I think of my mother, who will turn 78 in October. She has atrial fibrillation, and a few months ago she fell and gashed her head during a dizzy spell. Every year she bakes dozens of birthday cakes for friends and neighbors and shut-ins. She has set up a mask-sewing operation in her sunroom.

I think, too, of my colleagues, many of whom are accomplished scholars in their upper years but have not yet reached retirement. They wear bifocals and watch their cholesterol. Their wit abounds. They are parents and grandparents and anchors for generations of students who fought their way through college.

And those in my church come to mind, a trust of smart, compassionate folks who work for NASA and Georgetown University and the Maryland Food Bank, who practice law and work on cures for cancer and who love those around them with meals and gift cards and open homes and kind eyes.

How many points is that worth?

Our lives are not a sum of points but a rich collection of relationships and being. Perhaps a model that determines who lives and who dies supports Darwin’s notion that only the strong survive, but it suggests that strength is merely biological, overlooking the immense strength of character and lived experience, of generosity and love.

Shared Responsibility

On Facebook, my cousin told me that because of my risk, I should feel free to stay home. I have, mostly, been staying home. My children have been staying home. But staying home isn’t a guarantee of safety. I can do everything I should and still get sick because I am imperfect and this virus is stealthy. Maybe I won’t tighten my mask enough. Maybe I won’t wipe down the grocery delivery thoroughly enough. Maybe my daughter will forget to wear a mask when she takes out the garbage.

But even if it’s my responsibility to try to avoid getting sick, it is our responsibility to manage the crisis. When the not-at-risk needlessly or carelessly gather, they increase the infection pool, and that means impossible point-tallying choices for health care personnel. Because too many Americans have confused shared responsibility with a loss of freedom, the at-risk become even more at risk. Because some people feel they deserve the right to go to a party or the beach or even church, when the time comes, the doctors will read the charts and calculate the points, and people like me won’t get a ventilator, and my children will lose another mother.

When it’s my time to go, I will go, but I have no desire to be a martyr in the name of misplaced zeal. Serving a God who can do anything is not an excuse for reckless behavior.

As a Christian, I believe every life has equal value and that I should sacrifice my life for others the way that Jesus did. Right now my sacrifice means staying alive for my daughters, trying to provide them the stability they lacked in their early lives, to get them through school and into the world. I am not willing to relinquish that responsibility, that call, because someone insisted they just can’t do with another Saturday—or Sunday—in the house.

We can’t talk about these matters without considering privilege. Identifying the at-risk is not as easy as drawing lines around the sick or the elderly. With every passing week, the statistics and the studies and our understanding of this shapeshifting virus have proven that assumption wrong in every way. We must enlarge the circles to include the working class, minorities, and the marginalized, all of whom are disproportionately infected.

Today we are seeing people in every state risk their own health and safety to demonstrate the multifaceted inadequacy of existing circles by protesting racial injustice. Although I wish all protesters would wear masks and practice physical distancing, the protests themselves are revealing the very intersections of liberty, personal preference, and systemic inequities that make this pandemic an unfair fight. 

Collective Power

I do not envy the medical professionals who find themselves in the center of this crisis, overwhelmed by patients and under-supplied with equipment. But that does not change a fundamental truth: a politician’s life is not more important than my mother’s, a 40-year-old businessman’s life is not more important than my college president’s or my church elder’s, and my terminal condition does not make my life any less worth saving than anyone else’s.

We have the collective power to save from this virus everyone who can be saved, but as neither the federal government nor enough billionaires are solving the ventilator shortage, it falls to us to ensure that we try to stay healthy. Then those who need a ventilator can have one, and no one has to die because they didn’t accumulate enough points.

In the name of American individuality, we have lost sight of what it means to love our neighbor. My pastor said right now, loving our neighbor means doing so from a distance. We love our neighbors by protecting them, by doing everything we can to keep them safe. We have forgotten what it means to sacrifice, to stand on the principle that our personal freedom means nothing if our brothers and sisters are not free, that our personal happiness is tainted if our brothers and sisters are suffering. We have also forgotten that closing a building doesn’t close the church and in fact might be an opportunity for us to show the love of God to our communities in creative ways.

We all matter to someone, and most of us cannot help the hand we’re dealt. Even without the neighbor-loving business of faith, society functions on the premise that we help each other along, that we act in ways that benefit the whole, not just the parts. Without such a mindset, we lose our humanity, and that is worse than any illness ever could be.

My cousin said we will have to agree to disagree. I love her, but for me and so many others, this argument is real, not theoretical. A few days ago, another Facebook friend posted a quote from Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” So I speak here, now, for the high-risk: for the elderly, for the disabled, for persons of color, for essential personnel, for the otherwise marginalized.

I speak the truth that we all deserve to live. I speak here, now, while I can.

About the Author

Wendy Bilen and her daughters live in Hyattsville, Maryland, and regularly attend the Washington DC Christian Reformed Church. She is an assistant professor of English at the women’s college of Trinity Washington University.

See comments (1)

Comments

Sorry but I think it more agree with your cousin. 

Of course, "we all deserve to live," but these virus and many other "impediments" require us, while yet in this world, to make hard choices -- all the time.  We can't avoid that with pithy, winsome phrases.

If the choice had to be made, I'd give a lot of other people the ventilator instead of having it for myself (I'm 65, and yes, other lives need to continue more than mine).  And the reasons for that, roughly, are the calculations made in a "point system," even if that sounds cold.

And a healthy economy is a very important something to preserve, including for others (kids, grandkids, others' kids and grandkids), even if at some risk to my health or even death. 

I drive my car often, even if I risk death every time I do.  And I still go to work every day.  There is more to life than merely maximizing avoidance of death.

X