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Commentary: It is not a plague, it is a lesson

In times of distress and hardship, reaffirmations of faith and a renewed search for answers move to the forefront. In this season of Easter and Passover, the religious look upward and ask, “Why would you do this? What could possibly be the plan?” Some point to the Biblical plagues and ask, “What have our modern-day ‘Pharaohs’ refused to do, that you feel the need to descend this upon us to unharden their hearts?” Others say that we are reaping what we have sown, and that blasphemy and godlessness have caused a return to an Old Testament-style, vengeful God. For those who are more scientifically inclined, thoughts and talk turn to global warming and the harm humanity has done to the planet.

Kramer

Kramer

Such questions and doubts, however, are misguided and misplaced. COVID-19 is not a plague in the Biblical sense. It is not a punishment descended upon humankind. Judaism, Christianity and Islam trace their paths to the same Old Testament and with it to the story of Noah. To a believer, that makes the point — for the pandemic most assuredly falls within the category of things God, after the Great Flood, promised to never unleash again. Surely, the once-vengeful, always all-knowing, parental, now-benevolent God keeps such promises.

COVID-19 is not a punishment from God. It is a lesson in humility.

We as people have self-proclaimed ourselves to be the head of the food chain, the most evolved animal on the planet. We use lower-echelon animals to do our bidding — be it laying our eggs, being slaughtered for our meat, racing for our entertainment or some other purpose — without a thought. When people talk about “THE” virus, they forget one thing: A virus is a living organism. It is alive. Whereas we may be the most evolved organism on the planet, a virus is one of the simplest.

Today, the mighty human is brought to its knees by the simple virus. What does that teach us? Perhaps we are not so special. Perhaps, when this has cleared, we should consider how we co-exist upon this earth with all organisms, large and small. Not from a practical view, but from a philosophical one. Then, perhaps, we should use that same approach to look at ourselves and at what is truly important with respect to our individual lives and how we interact with each other. The first place to exercise a newfound humility, after all, is in our dealings with other organisms of our own species.

That is for later, however. Today we have choices to make, which is where the legal profession comes into play, especially in America. The “Great American Experiment” was and remains founded on the concept of people being governed and assisted by leaders, without such leaders or their military imposing their will upon us. Ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. One of the first precepts adopted by our nation proclaimed our government could not force us to open our homes to the military and lodge soldiers at our expense without recourse. Another imposed a ban on the government taking personal property without just compensation. Although the Bill of Rights was fashioned as an early ‘amendment’ of our Constitution, the approach was form over substance. The protection of the rights enunciated was a condition of the adoption of the Constitution in the first instance. In short, our society is a system founded on personal liberty and the restrictions on our own government’s ability to impose its will upon our own.

Today, however, our nation, its Constitution, its judges, its legislators and each of us must make difficult choices. The legal issue is straightforward. To what extent may the federal government or any state, county, city or council constitutionally restrict, limit or strip away the liberty of the people in order to slow or prevent the spread of disease? To the lawyers and lay people alike, the life-and-death question is less clear. To what extent should it be permissible or tolerated, Constitution or not?

Today we are being told we must close down our businesses, not leave our homes and not be near others. We are being told that the decision as to whether to take a risk of disease in order to go to a movie or to play or view a sport is not ours to make. We are told we cannot choose to peaceably assemble in public. We are told we cannot appear in person in the courts of our land and that some claims are simply not important enough to be resolved today. Workers are being furloughed, laid off and outright terminated. Industry is slowing, with but a few exceptions. Restaurants, entertainment venues, hardware stores, flower shops, laundromats and enterprises of all types and natures are dark.

The legal community as a profession is not spared. We may be deemed “essential” by stay-at-home initiatives, orders and enactments, but many lawyers are finding their phones have stopped ringing. Yet most believe if we can just hold on, we will lead out of the economic vise. Sadly, they say, it will be a surprise if, when the storm has passed, the legal profession does not explode with activity. Does anybody doubt that we shall see lawsuits against people who let people congregate before or during the restrictive period, brought by those who become ill or who lose a loved one? At the same, do we doubt that we shall also see lawsuits against those who did not let people congregate, from those who lost income as a result? Will we not simultaneously see suits against employers who fail to properly comply with government programs designed to assist employees, and suits against employees for improperly exploiting those programs? We shall see bankruptcies, reorganizations, collections, evictions, and more. Dealmakers will again make deals.

In time, the quarantines and stay-at-home edicts will be lifted. Slowly, businesses will open, and children will return to schools. Courthouses will open, and crowded dockets will sort themselves out. We will once again stand in line with others without concern.

Of course, this does not mean that it will not nonetheless be a new world with different sensibilities, with people understanding the need to treat each other fairly, and to move to win-win, rather than cutthroat decimation. The humility we will have learned from being devastated by the lowly organism called virus undoubtedly will transform our legal process and the way lawyers and clients alike seek to resolve their disputes. We will have a new understanding of the need to understand and to coexist. People across the world will understand the impact our actions and inactions have on others, and the impact their actions have on us with prescience previously unknown. Even as we return to normal, we will know that we have looked into the abyss and seen ourselves, and we never will want to look that way again.

I mean, after all of this, we could not really just go back to our same old ways . . . Could we?

© 2020 under analysis distribution LLC.  Under analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Charles Kramer is a principal of the St Louis-based law firm Riezman Berger PC.  Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent to your local paper, or directly to ckramer@riezmanberger.com. 

Coronavirus crisis

This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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