Notre Dame claimed the moral high ground in reopening — but the virus wasn't impressed

Notre Dame claimed the moral high ground in reopening — but the virus wasn't impressed
Airmen from the 18th Medical Group conduct COVID-19 testing at Kadena Air Base, Japan, March 20. Under the most current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the 18 MDG has increased its testing for the disease. Those who are tested become Persons Under Investigation (PUI), are contacted by Public Health, placed into isolation and instructed on how to avoid spread of their illness to family members in the home. Public Health interviews the PUI and develops a list of “close contacts” who are then called and given instructions to quarantine for 14 days. A close contact is someone who lived with or cared for a PUI, had direct physical contact with a PUI, or shared eating utensils or had prolonged close conversation with a PUI. On average, lab results take 2-5 days to return. If results are negative, isolated and quarantined individuals will be notified and released. If results come back positive, quarantine for the close contact will continue for 14 days and isolation for the PUI will continue until the PUI is medically cleared. Someone who has had contact with someone deemed a close contact does not need to be placed in quarantine but should continue to practice social distancing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Mandy Foster)

In late May of this year, Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame (UND), penned in the The New York Times what certainly ranks as one of the more sanctimonious op-eds ever published, in the Times or anywhere else, for that matter. He forcefully declared that his university would safely reopen in the fall, despite the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, aka COVID-19.


Citing his Catholic education (which he pointed out he shared with luminaries such as Dr. Anthony Fauci), and specifically its emphasis on “the study of classical texts, philosophy and theology,” Fr. Jenkins concluded that, while science might “inform” the college’s deliberations on whether to reopen, science alone could not “provide the answer.” He then proceeded to set forth his own answer, detailing UND’s plan to open two weeks early, with specific measures taken to ensure that the students would not be put at undue risk.

Referencing such esteemed thinkers as Aristotle, Father Jenkins assured his readers that a consideration of the moral aspects of coping with the virus was essential to ”provide the next generation of leaders the education they need and to do the research and scholarship so valuable to our society.” It’s not clear what other sources of moral certitude Jenkins plumbed to make his arguments. He notably did not mention the potential loss of revenue attendant to the $57,000 tuition and fees per student, and although the importance of football was prominently emphasized, the lost promotional and advertising revenues from a potentially canceled fall sports season do not appear in his analysis. At least a few of his points felt like they came from a right-wing Facebook group.

Consider this string of deflection.

We are in our society regularly willing to take on ourselves or impose on others risks — even lethal risks — for the good of society. We send off young men and women to war to defend the security of our nation knowing that many will not return. We applaud medical professionals who risk their health to provide care to the sick and suffering. We each accept the risk of a fatal traffic accident when we get in our car.

Of course, this week we saw the end results of Fr. Jenkins’ moral argument, as Notre Dame’s reopening plans swiftly collapsed, accompanied by a significant amount of finger-pointing—at the students themselves, of course.

A week into the fall semester, the University of Notre Dame announced on Tuesday that it would move to online instruction for at least the next two weeks in an attempt to control a growing coronavirus outbreak, and could move to shut down campus entirely.

***

At Notre Dame’s campus near South Bend, Ind., 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students were tested before they could return to campus on Aug. 3 to start classes a week later. The few dozen who tested positive were told to stay home. Yet by Tuesday, the school reported that at least 147 people had tested positive for the virus over the last two weeks.

A university spokesman said a significant number of the confirmed cases were connected to two off-campus parties where students, mostly seniors, did not wear masks or practice social distancing…[.]

But what has never before been revealed—until now—was that the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself, obviously solicitous of Father Jenkins’ unique position, took the pains to personally review and respond in writing to his arguments, one by one, as set forth in that New York Times op-ed.

I have obtained that written response by the SARS-Cov-2 virus, through sources which I cannot divulge. Some excerpts of the virus’ response are printed below. Interestingly, the virus refers to itself in the third person throughout.

FATHER JOHN JENKINS: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is a distinguished immunologist and an advocate for public health. I have the privilege of sharing with him an education in Catholic schools laden with the study of classical texts, philosophy and theology.

THE VIRUS: SARS-CoV-2 has the utmost respect for classical learning. Through the centuries our fellow viruses have enjoyed our interactions with the strongest and most refined human intellects and their cultures.

JENKINS: There are, however, questions that a scientist, speaking strictly as a scientist, cannot answer for us.

VIRUS: SARS-CoV-2 agrees. However, for SARS-CoV-2’s purposes, the steadfast nature of science has proved itself to be useful and generally unerring. 

JENKINS: Our focus to this point has been on restarting our educational and research efforts, and we will soon turn to answer the question of how many games we will play, when we will play them and how many fans will be in the stadium.

VIRUS: SARS-CoV-2 eagerly awaits your decision in this regard.

JENKINS: Our decision to return to on-campus classes for the fall semester was guided by three principles that arise from our core university goals. First, we strive to protect the health of our students, faculty, staff and their loved ones. Second, we endeavor to offer an education of the whole person—body, mind and spirit—and we believe that residential life and personal interactions with faculty members and among students are critical to such an education. Finally, we seek to advance human understanding through research, scholarship and creative expression.

VIRUS: SARS-CoV-2 admires this three-pronged approach toward reopening, and encourages it. Sadly, SARS-CoV-2 cannot opine on the goals of the university, as it is guided by only a single consideration: the proximity of one human host to another.

JENKINS: We live in a global society, and it is possible that animal-to-person contact in an open market somewhere may again cause a pandemic disrupting our society.

VIRUS: Agreed. SARS-CoV-2 has gained a new appreciation for this method of initial transmission over the past six months.

JENKINS: We send off young men and women to war to defend the security of our nation knowing that many will not return. We applaud medical professionals who risk their health to provide care to the sick and suffering. We each accept the risk of a fatal traffic accident when we get in our car.

VIRUS: SARS-CoV-2 supports the risks humans voluntarily face in this society. However SARS-CoV-2 generally does not engage in this type of comparative analysis in attaining its goals.

JENKINS: Disagreements among us on that question are deep and vigorous, but I’d hope for wide agreement that the education of young people—the future leaders of our society—is worth risking a good deal.

VIRUS: Again, SARS-CoV-2 does not perform risk assessment. Our only concern is proximity of one host to another.

JENKINS: In our classical, humanistic educations, both Dr. Fauci and I came across the texts of Aristotle, who defined courage not as simple fearlessness, but as the mean between a rashness that is heedless of danger and a timidity that is paralyzed by it. To possess the virtue of courage is to be able to choose the proper mean between these extremes — to know what risks are worth taking, and why.

VIRUS: SARS-CoV-2 and its fellow viruses are familiar with and enjoyed their interaction with Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, but expresses no position on the analysis set forth here. Again, SARS-CoV-2 does not typically engage in moral debates. Our sole concern, as set forth above, is the proximity of one living host to another. In conclusion, and without belaboring the issue, SARS-CoV-2 is happy and willing to further engage in this discussion at a mutually convenient time and place.

Although it has not yet been confirmed, it is believed that the SARS-Cov-2 virus has expressed a similar position to other institutions of learning that are intent upon reopening this fall, including the University of North Carolina.

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