The pandemic has exposed serious flaws in America's social contract.


Empty Nesters grew up in an era that emphasized a collective will to help the less fortunate. Is our social contract fading away?


As we drove to San Antonio last Wednesday afternoon, M’Lissa received a phone call she dreaded. COVID had claimed the life of a loyal employee’s mother and the employee needed help. I listened as M’Lissa made calls on the employee’s behalf. At first, the calls induced sorrow, but as the drive continued, my emotion turned to bitter disappointment at our powerlessness. The “social contract” was cracking before my eyes.


N (Philosophy) (in the theories of Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau and others) an agreement, entered into by individuals, that results in the formation of a state or organized society, the prime motive being the desire for protection, which entails the surrender of some or all personal liberties.

Collins English Dictionary –Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers

Philosophers noticed something about life outside a social contract. Specifically, without an organizing principle holding the world together, lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short“. When we work together, our lives improve. At its core, the social contract holds that protecting our brother benefits us because he will protect us. That thought never seemed controversial to me.


The employee’s mom was poor, with Medicaid as her only medical insurance. When she first became slightly symptomatic, the doctor’s office told her to stay away. I understand the science-we want to limit the spread of the disease-but the advice left the family confused and afraid. Working on doctor’s orders, perhaps the mother waited too long before seeking treatment. Alternatively, she could have been one of the unlucky ones that the virus chooses for cruelty, even absent a pre-existing condition. Whatever the case, once hospitalized, she fought valiantly in a losing battle.

The family struggled throughout, despairing at the lack of contact COVID treatment mandates. In all the numbers and the oppressive politics of the pandemic, we lose sight of a basic fact. Dying alone is a fate no person deserves. We even allow the families and the priests of those executed to be with the condemned; the science of the disease prevents even that small dignity.

The worry and anxiety never stops these days.
Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

No one evades that rule, but the well-off at least force substitutes for human contact. This employee’s family is modest and humble. With no “social contract advocate” helping them while their mother languished, the family turned to fervent prayers asking God to intercede. God chose to answer those prayers in his own way. So, on Wednesday the family began to think about their mother’s funeral.


The family had not expected this result; popular accounts tell us that the virus does not kill healthy, relatively young people. So they were in shock and without the resources to do what needed to be done. My wife will not stand by and let people suffer, least of all a friend. M’Lissa called two places we expect to enforce the social contract for families of the dead: churches and funeral homes. For good measure she added the hospital social worker assigned to the case.

I understand that Wednesday was the day before a holiday. I cannot accept institutions that exist to comfort the bereaved treating human suffering like a broken appliance, scheduled for service next Monday. Without the gory details, the calls revealed that “the system” does not care to assuage the grief of small people. The social contract requires these institutions to act, to do something that communicates love and concern. M’Lissa is a powerful advocate, but she could not impress on the people on the other end of the phone calls that they had an obligation to meet. The church staff was on vacation and the funeral parlor was only interested in full freight customers.


My memory, received from my ancestors and from my observations, tells me that callousness in the face of crisis is a new phenomenon. When I was 12 years old, a flood devastated my neighborhood. To this day, I remember the local McDonald’s delivering daily truckloads of free meals to people working to reclaim their homes.

That seemed normal. In World War II, we planted victory gardens and gave up on gas and tires to defeat fascism. During the 1960’s, people with much to lose stood next to the African-Americans attempting to secure basic human rights. When disaster came in the form of terrorist acts or an unprecedented hurricane, the question was how to channel the aid, not whether help would come. The American version of the social contract was a point of patriotic pride. Simply said, in exchange for the extraordinary liberty we enjoy, we go to extraordinary lengths in times of need.

Apparently, we have decided that the burdens of the social contract are too onerous. We respond to a once in a lifetime pandemic with this question: “why should I be inconvenienced?” I am not talking about trying to keep businesses open; I allow for reasonable disagreement over the extent of restricted activity. Instead, my question is “are we acting with a charitable spirit?” The honest answer is self-evident.


To be fair, severe pandemics vary from almost everyone’s experience. The optimist in me would argue that we have not rejected the social contract, we just do not know how to enforce it in unique circumstances. Sadly, my heart is not in it.

Truthfully, we have moved towards Darwinism for a while. In 1987, Gordon Gekko said out loud “greed is good.” America has endorsed that concept with a fervor ever since. For instance, we love the concept behind Uber because we can ignore the fact that the person providing the service may not be making a living wage. Instead, we focus on how much the service improves our lives. Would Uber be successful if there was $2.00 surcharge on each ride to bump up the drivers’ pay.

COVID 19 is exposing the cracks in our fragile system
Photo by Savvas Stavrinos from Pexels

At least economic rationales exist for cut-throat capitalism. The political schism that endorsed hyperbole and vicious personal attacks accelerated before anyone had heard of “Coronavirus.” The rise of social media during the period of acceleration cannot be just a coincidence. How are we going to help our brother when we spend most days insulting each other? 270,000 dead is hard to ignore, but perhaps the biggest tragedy of the pandemic is that we have failed to come together, if even for a moment, to fight it. We would rather litigate the social contract than live with it.


M’Lissa and I are not important people in the grand scheme of things. Yet we do not feel that way. Our education, our privilege and our resources give us hope that the world is not indifferent to our efforts. M’Lissa’s employee likely does not feel the same; she depends on the world to work for her. I use to scorn that attitude in favor of self-destiny. Almost sixty years of watching the earth spin has softened my view. In reality, the employee is just a realist.

Why God allows society to amplify the family’s sorrow by refusing to give the event the dignity it deserves baffles me. M’Lissa did her part to enforce the social contract when others failed, so I guess there is a silver lining. Still I worry. How long will the efforts of the kind hearted balance the growing indifference I saw in our medical and economic systems? More shockingly, if we cannot count on the church for basic compassion, why should we expect individuals to practice the trait?

It was a small death with unnecessary suffering. We should be a bigger people. If not, most of our lives will be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

The social contract is no stronger than our willingness to compromise.
JPhoto by Savvas Stavrinos from Pexels

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