Coronavirus: A Modern Leprosy

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What an interesting time during the coronavirus for my bar mitzvah parshas of Tazria and Metzora this week, where we learn about how to handle someone with the plague of leprosy.

Our sages instruct us that leprosy is a punishment for lashon hara (e.g. slander, libel, and evil speech).  I will leave it to our Rabbanim to instruct us on what the coronavirus is either a punishment for, is here to teach us, or perhaps is part of ushering in the coming of Mashiach.

What’s fascinating though for our times is that right here in the Torah, long before medical science understood germs, washing of hands, and disinfectants, we have the first instruction on quarantining someone who is sick. The person with leprosy is deemed impure and is put outside the camp in quarantine, repeatedly checked (e.g. tested) by the Kohen, until they are healed, at which time they are purified before being allowed back in. What we don’t see with leprosy is that the whole community is put in a state of quasi quarantine as we are doing now globally with the coronavirus.

While I understand the need to keep people safe, it seems incumbent on us to identify who is actually sick and put them in quarantine rather than just deem everyone at risk and quarantine the sick and the healthy. I fear that because of the “abundance of caution,” social distancing, global shutdown, and 24/7 media attention for the coronavirus over the last number of weeks that this is going to swing back like an over-extended pendulum into public anger, resistance, and even dangerous complacency from the incessant daily warnings of “the sky is falling!”

Already people are antsy at being locked down at home and unable to do their work and daily activities (exercise, prayer, shopping, entertainment, and vacations).  Some have gone so far as to claim that this whole coronavirus was a hoax, an overreaction, politically driven, and basically that the global shutdown was a big and costly mistake.

It’s become almost commonplace for some people to say: “It’s just another flu!” or “the cure is worse than the disease!” Still we need to ask ourselves if we’ve made people excessively paranoid with wearing masks and social distancing everywhere and being careful not to touch anything. The media has inundated us with non-stop coronavirus news and White House press briefings on the subject. By locking people down, we’ve taken away their basic abilities to live normal, day-to-day lives. They and the President now are heard yelling back that we need to “reopen the economy” and get this nation going again, while at the same time we are doling out trillions of dollars in “rescue funds” that has the potential along with the already bloated national debt to sink our economy down the road.

The call to “flatten the curve” where the healthcare system is overwhelmed by sick and dying people is being replaced by accusations of why were we so ill-prepared to begin with? As well as, are we overstepping using surveillance, increased testing, and lockdown to infringe on people’s civil liberties?

Confusing double-talk on vaccines and treatments abound with nobody really seeming to know when, if ever, coronavirus will actually be solved. One expert disagrees with the next. First there is no cure, then everyone has a cure and it’s coming in 12-18 months, 3-5 years, and then it comes back to who knows if any of them will even really work. Some say heat effectively kills the virus and others say that it can survive extended periods in heat, so better to use disinfectants. Similarly, first the Feds are in charge then we punt it back to the governors, but at some point we have to ask: is anyone really in charge? I think this leads us back to G-d being the only one who is ultimately in charge.

On the earthly side of things though, if our health gurus haven’t been able to solve the seasonal flu, how can we have confidence that they are going to solve the coronavirus? We have all sorts of predictions of when we’ll “get back to normal,” or wait “this is the new normal,” and warnings that if we go back too early, there will be some societal hell to pay. How many times do we hear of a second wave if we relax the restrictions too early or when the Fall season comes around again or even perhaps yearly until this is resolved. Have we peaked or will there be waves of virus with multiple peaks? People are getting tired of all the back and forth and are fed up with the endless stream of pundits and their nonsense of ongoing speculation. Just from the standpoint of the basics: why aren’t there enough core medical supplies, masks, wipes, test kits, ventilators, hospital beds, and even toilet paper? How did the system so break down and fail us?

I see some people starting to take their chances, testing fate, getting too close, ripping off their masks, and questioning the whole quarantining thing. No one seems to be able to intelligently answer why this is being treated so differently than SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, etc. and whether or not (definitively) this came from eating wild animals or a Chinese bioweapons laboratory. Moreover are we blaming China, holding them accountable or squat?

In the end, I see this coronavirus blowing up with some people forever anxious and germaphobic and others becoming complacent and careless about the whole thing.  Either way there will be more sick and dying people, as well as anger at the system that over time repeatedly failed us. This week’s parsha is a good reminder to go back to the ultimate wisdom of the Torah and read again how we handle the leper and manage with a thoughtful risk-based management approach and an eye on the ultimate purity—physically and spiritually—of the individual and the community.

About the Author
Andy Blumenthal is a business and technology leader who writes frequently about Jewish life, culture, and security. All opinions are his own.
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