On the Unfairness of Life, Death, and Covid-19

By Edward Hadas

It’s Easter, for Christians a season of hope and a reminder of eternity, but in the here and now, it’s just not fair.

When we are not mourning, fretting, suffering, volunteering, or just getting on with our newly isolated lives, we are tempted to complain. Quarantines are not fair. The Covid-19 virus pandemic is not fair. Dying young is not fair. Death is not fair. All four of those complaints are justified, to different degrees and for different reasons.

Death is not fair

What did we do to deserve this? Ask Job. Ask Saint Paul. Ask Adam and Eve. Christians have a narrative of creation, sin, suffering and death, of redemption and life: in that order but also, somehow, overlapping. Theologians and philosophers add their wisdom and foolishness, but however deeply we think we understand God’s mercy and justice, there is here (as theologians like to say when faced with an impossible question) a great mystery.

We understand that death is inevitable, we may find life almost unbearable: and yet, we resist. We want life to go on. It’s not fair, this creeping certainty of the end of life as we know it. We are not built for separation from the living, or for the isolation of quarantine. We are created for and in communion with others. Even if I can be reconciled to my death, yours—you whom I love—your death is certainly not fair.

The current pandemic reinforces the enduring lament. I am not particularly relieved to hear that X percent of the Covid-19 victims were so frail or ill that they would have died in the next few months or years anyway. I resent and reject every removal from this life. The prematurity is irrelevant. The unpleasantness of old age and suffering is basically a trick to make death appear less opposed to our original, pre-Fall nature. You don’t have to be Dostoevsky to see through that ruse. Death is not fair.

Dying young is not fair

Not all the victims of this new virus were already on their way out. The random slaying of the otherwise well seems particularly unfair; like automobile accidents, which kill around 1.3 million mostly relatively young people each year (as I write, about 10 times the total Covid-19 count).

Yet, the thought that youth is the wrong time for death would have been almost incomprehensible only a century ago. Death was likely as soon as life started and remained a constant companion until… well, until death. High infant mortality was followed a few years later by high mortality in war and in childbirth. From birth onwards, incurable medical conditions, fatal accidents, vicious famines and various sorts of political and judicial cruelty steadily picked off young and old with indiscriminate fervour. No one ever had reason to feel safe from death.

In our current world, all that has changed. We call premature the death of anyone younger than 70, or even 80 years old. It is a remarkable modern accomplishment. Had our ancestors known what was coming, they might have justly complained: it is not fair that I live in the 14th or 19th century, before intubation, medical oxygen, antibiotics, vaccines and antiviral pharmaceuticals.

Nowadays, people live longer and healthier lives than at any previous time in history. So are the exceptions, the relatively few who do not die of the diseases of age, not fair? I think so, because the correct standard of fairness changes along with what is possible. The lack of electric power or of railroads was not unfair three centuries ago, and the lack of internet access was not unfair three decades ago. Now these deprivations are unnecessary and unjust.

Something similar is true of dying young. Much of it has become unfair, because much of it could have been prevented. Especially deaths at human hands, whether the cause is murderous commission or negligent omission.

After all, we moderns are keen on technological progress. We are very good at it. But we should and could do better. That inadequacy is not constant. It increases. The more we accomplish and the more we understand, the greater is the moral failure of not doing more and better. The world’s far too many poor people have a particularly just complaint about the lack of fairness. In a more just world, far fewer of them would die before their newly defined time.

The Covid-19 virus pandemic is not fair

A century ago, in 1918, the Spanish ‘flu killed something like 50 million people. That was roughly 2.5% of the world’s population and about seven times as many as died in all the battles of the First World War, which was coming to a climax as the pandemic spread. The influenza’s toll was certainly high, but it added only modestly to the unnatural unfairness of death itself. Humans were not entirely innocent victims, for they amplified the hecatomb with careless travel, especially the movement of troops; and with a cruel blockade of Germany that weakened the resistance to disease. For the most part, though, the influenza deaths were no more unfair than any acts of God. People could do little to prevent them, since there were no effective treatments and contagion was not well understood.

Thanks to modern innovations, far fewer people are likely to die from Covid-19 than from the Spanish flu. We can give the afflicted air to breathe and kill some of the pathogens which threaten their lives. The internet allows long and massive lockdowns and spreads best medical practices. The rapid developments of sophisticated tests, tracing tools and, God willing, vaccines may limit the virus’s spread.

Still, justice is not measured in crude numbers. The relatively few deaths from Covid-19 are more unfair than the vast number during the earlier pandemic. They could have done better, but not much better. We could have done much better. We could have prevented the disease from spreading in the first place.

Humans might never have caught it had the Chinese authorities used the best available technologies and supervision techniques to reduce the chances of contamination in the food chain. Economic development requires many choices, and the choice to give relatively low priority to public health was a bad one. The dire effects of that choice were magnified when the first cases arrived. For weeks, the Chinese authorities ignored or even repressed reports of an infectious agent that could threaten public health.

Nor are other governments blameless. The effective responses of South Korea and Taiwan offered models that could have been followed relatively easily in North America and Europe. Now many residents will die because of their leaders’ choice to ignore them. That is definitely not fair.

Quarantines are not fair

Even with the internet, no one wants to be locked in their homes for weeks or months. Still, if such quarantines are the only way to prevent large numbers of deaths, then they are fair enough. In that case, the unfairness comes earlier in the chain of causes, probably at the inactions which allowed the virus to spread. But perhaps this actually goes all the way back to the first human entry into the fallen state of death and suffering.

Still, quarantine? The word comes from 14th century Venice, but the practice of isolating the ill and possibly ill is far older. In the book of Leviticus, God commands the Hebrews to separate lepers from the rest of the community. The Covid-19 quarantine is particularly inefficient. Hundreds of millions of people are kept at home to keep some unknown fraction of them from spreading the disease. Medieval Venetian physicians would not understand electron microscopes and genetic sequencing, but they would be very comfortable with today’s measures of population restraint.

In an age when all things are forever being made new, the reversion to this tried but not terribly true, hugely inconvenient method suggests a failure of effort or imagination. Already, the experts are thinking of next time: automatic contact-tracing technologies, standardised development protocols to create tests, and massive manufacturing capacity to produce them. It is not fair to the many people who are under restraint now that this work was not done earlier.

It’s simply not fair

The millions of victims of modern history have had many reasons to complain that their lives, and especially their deaths, were not fair. Random slaughter for political and military reasons has never been fair, and there has been a great deal of it over the last century. For around half a century, every death from malnutrition or easily preventable disease has not been fair: because every one of them could have been prevented. By the numbers, the varieties of negligence related to Covid-19 are relatively trivial. Compared to the toll of political and economic actions and inactions in the 20th century, this virus may well cause very little death and suffering.

Still, the leaders who let this new disease spread, and who have no better way than universal quarantines to slow that spread, have certainly made life and death unnecessarily unfair. We have a duty of gratitude towards those who take care of the ill, and those who risk death just by doing their jobs. We also have a duty of indignation. Perhaps against death itself: but definitely against those who have allowed this mess to develop.


Edward Hadas is a Research Fellow of Blackfriar’s Hall, Oxford, and a regular contributor to Reuters Breakingviews, a financial commentary service. His book, Counsels of Imperfection: Thinking through Catholic Social Teaching, will be published by Catholic University of America Press later this year.