Loving Your Neighbor in a Pandemic Mark Lagon

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Mark P. Lagon is Chief Policy Officer at Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum. Mark previously served as CEO of Freedom House and of Polaris, as well as U.S. Ambassador at Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Well before the onset of social distancing to curb a pandemic, the Trinity Forum took up sustained reflection on endemic loneliness. This included reading Dorothy Day and hearing from a truth teller about ills of our time, Russell Moore. The catalyst of loneliness and anomie has been addiction to social media.

The new coronavirus has accelerated remote interaction, moving everything more “virtual.” However, my hope is that some greater solidarity of community, nation, and world may yet come from taking on the pandemic, and the distancing ultimately be more physical than social.

If one feels loneliness or isolation, compounded by economic uncertainty, it is worth thinking of your neighbor. The imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself” is stressed as a paramount commandment in the Gospel of Matthew, but also lies at the common epicenter of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as other traditions.

Who then is your neighbor, and what does one owe them in the face of pandemic disease?

What you owe your neighbor in your community is keeping distance for a while, to preserve their lives.

If naturally anxious about isolation or economic dislocation, think of your more distant neighbors. Consider those around the world already vulnerable to the three biggest infectious disease threats to human life to date (TB, HIV, and malaria) – they will be even more at risk as a new pandemic reaches their often weaker health systems.

For example, one catches TB, another respiratory killer,  in close proximity – particularly in megacity slums, in prisons, in camps of displaced people. And while TB is curable, the treatment has to date required visiting clinics often – movement social distancing may limit.

A woman living with HIV in Nairobi spoke with me this week about stigma emerging in her country from the new coronavirus, on top of the stigma from HIV. Elsewhere in Uganda, Anglican Canon Gideon Byamugisha has devoted his voice to fighting such stigma.

Consider parents in Sub-Saharan Africa, caring for a small child with fever. Pastors, teachers and leaders have enjoined them to get a child with fever to a clinic within 48 hours in case it is malaria. These neighbors afar deserve help discerning how they must act when now urged to stay home, especially if someone has a fever.

For all its troubles, the West has recently set aside political feuds and insularity to help those most vulnerable to the three longstanding epidemics of AIDS, TB and malaria. So too we must when a new pandemic strikes. It is in our interest to do so, to prevent disease bouncing back against our families and fellow citizens, and to unlock economic benefits for all. Yet most of all it is our duty—to our neighbors.

For Christians, Holy Week is the culmination of a Lenten period dedicated to not just penitence—but also self-reflection. It is a difficult time but still important to think of our neighbors—those who cross borders fleeing violence and oppression, or the most vulnerable to devastating sickness. In solidarity with neighbors close and afar, we find an antidote to fear.


Recommended Reading and Resources
As we navigate these uncertain times together, we recommend the discussion and Readings below as both an encouragement and catalyst for reflection.