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Racism, Politics and Moral Dilemmas in the Time of Coronavirus


Philip Roth’s last book Nemesis opens at the beginning of the summer of 1944 in Newark, New Jersey, with the narrative of an outbreak of polio. This highly contagious disease had become, in the first half of the 20thcentury, one of the most worrying childhood plagues in metropolitan areas of Europe and America, until a polio vaccine was discovered in the 1950s by Jonas Salk. And soon after Albert Sabin developed the oral vaccine, which has become the world standard.

The protagonist of this novel, Bucky Cantor, is playground director for a summer fitness program in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Newark. He himself is a strong and gifted athlete who wants to help in this health crisis, but who is also deeply troubled with the moral dilemma of not always being able to do his best. It is 1944 and most of Bucky's friends have enlisted and are fighting with the Allied army in World War Two. Bucky again feels guilty because his eyesight is not good enough to enable him to serve. However, he does find himself involved in another war. There is a polio outbreak at the playground where he is the director. He does his best to protect the kids under his supervision and to keep parents from worrying too much about the disease. Polio at that time was a mysterious ailment and no one really knew what caused it. A variety of possible agents were blamed: flies, human contact, excessive heat. When youths from an Italian neighborhood show up at the playground and spit on the pavement as a provocation, Mr. Cantor acts as the Jewish children’s protector. He stands up to the Italians and forces them to leave, and then he makes sure the spit is cleaned up with hot water and ammonium. A few days after the confrontation with the Italians, two boys who were at the playground that day come down with polio. Both are soon killed by the disease, much to the devastation of Cantor and the community. When Cantor attends the funeral of one of the boys, he feels angry and bitter, especially toward God.

Polio continues to spread throughout Newark, and several more kids under his supervision contract the disease. Cantor’s long-term girlfriend, Marcia Steinberg, is working at a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains and, over the phone, she tells Cantor there’s a job at the camp he could accept. He is unsure because he doesn’t want to defect from his mission. Then, after speaking with Marcia’s father, who reassures him, he calls and proposes marriage. She gladly accepts. Cantor also says that he will take the job at the camp.

He goes to the camp and is excited to work where his fiancée is also working. But despite the happiness of being there, so distantly removed from the hotbed of polio that is Newark, he feels guilty for having left his previous job. He sees his departure as an abandonment of the children whom he had supervised. But for a while he anesthetizes his guilt and becomes accustomed to the pleasure of life at the camp. He befriends a 17-year-old camper named Donald Kaplow, who is interested in learning diving techniques from him. Cantor and Marcia are happy together. However, his guilt surfaces again and nags at him further, and this shows during an argument he has with Marcia. Cantor angrily says that God is cruel for inflicting polio on innocent children.

Eventually, Donald Kaplow begins to feel ill and is rushed to a nearby hospital. There, doctors confirm that he has polio. Cantor is horrified and immediately believes that he must have unwittingly carried polio to the camp. The camp is shut down as more campers begin to contract the disease. Over the following months, he is treated, and although polio does not kill him, it eliminates all function in one of his legs, and it eliminates most of the function in one of his arms. Cantor has to give up his dream of being a physical education teacher, and finds a desk job at the local post office.

One day, almost thirty years later, Cantor happens to encounter Arnie Mesnikoff, who was one of Cantor’s students in Newark. Cantor and Arnie begin to have lunch regularly. Arnie also contracted polio that summer, and although it affected his legs, he is able to walk with a crutch and leg braces. During their lunches, Cantor tells Arnie his story. He says that he ended his engagement to Marcia after polio crippled him. He says that his motivation was to spare Marcia the pain of being married to a crippled man, although Marcia said that she still loved Cantor and wanted to marry him. Again, his recurrent and sharp feelings of inadequacy and guilt prevented him from being happy together with the person he loved. And thus the novel ends.

There are people who pretend to be happy despite the misery that surrounds them and there are also people like Bucky Cantor who renounce happiness because they don’t want to increase that misery by their own happiness. So, is it extreme moral awareness to forego happiness in a world of misery? Can our present world ever find a decent and honorable bridge between them both? Can our politics start thinking morally without becoming moralist? Are confessional religions ready to shift from the obsession with what’s right to at least aspire and become curious with what’s good and alive?

At this writing more than 7.5 million people have been infected from COVID-19 in the world, and at least 420,000 have died, according to a Johns Hopkins University report. The USA is still the epicenter with 2.05 million people infected, and 115,000 deaths. The United Kingdom has become second by total deaths, surpassing Italy and Spain. But the epicenter is rapidly moving to Latin America with Brazil as second worst by infections and deaths, followed by the worrying increase of cases in Peru, Chile and Mexico. And we still don’t know what will be the final social, economic and psychological effects of this pandemic.

To this already complicated political situation – trying to open up horizons of hope and trust – there has been added the additional problem of racism. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. A white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down in the street, begging for his life and repeatedly saying "I can't breathe." During the final three minutes Floyd was motionless and had no pulse while Chauvin ignored onlookers' pleas to remove his knee. Floyd's death triggered protests in more than 75 U.S. cities against police brutality, racism and lack of accountability. The protests rapidly became worldwide, with thousands of people taking the streets of Barcelona, Madrid, Brussels, Rome and Berlin, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But racism also correlates to the pandemic, as structural and latent racism is visible in the medical and public reports since the beginning of the outbreak. Reliable data shows Covid-19 is affecting African Americans at exceptionally high rates. It underscores a broader trend showing that coronavirus isn’t an equalizer but a magnifier of inequality. Nearly 23% of reported Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. are African American as of June 10, even though black people make up roughly 13% of the U.S. population. According to media reports, in Chicago, where African Americans comprise a third of the city’s population, they account for half of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, and almost three-quarters of COVID-19 deaths. Likewise, in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, African Americans make up 70% of deaths due to the coronavirus, but just 26% of the county’s population.

For these reasons the U.S.A. must wake up and think it over its foundations. Racism is not a transitory phenomenon, an unfortunate historical slipup in the virtuous heart of a generous and morally reliable nation. Thus a circumstantial civic and religious corrective is, for this very reason, not only insufficient but historically cynical. Racism is synchronic and symbiotic to America, since its very beginning. So much so that no proclamation, no legislation, no constitutional Amendments (13th, 14th, 15th), no civil war, not even a generous “civil rights movement” have commanded it away. And the various noble and authentic religious communities and spiritual awakenings in this important territory of the world, that should have at least perceived it (Adventism included), have unfortunately very often stirred it up or even nurtured it.

Last Tuesday London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for a commission to review that capital's landmarks, after Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol toppled a statue, 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, and threw it into the harbor. This may be a way of starting a necessary revisiting of a nation’s historical foundations.

The lie of racism, with its fake sense of superiority, lives deep in America’s soul and psyche. But unfortunately, this is also the lie of the entire Western world, which repeatedly has ignored, minimized, exploited and stigmatized communities other than its own. And still is the lie of the exploited and segregated, blacks or yellows, who out of despair apply to others even more vulnerable, the same mechanisms that have oppressed them.

Thus, in a diffuse and chronic lack of moral awareness, Philip Roth’s Bucky Cantor’s excessive sense of inadequacy and moral insufficiency towards others could nevertheless become a persuasive example to consider. Because the true and more fundamental moral question is not how to legitimately survive in the worst situation but rather how make it possible for our neighbor to survive. If the other survives most probably we’ll survive also. But if the other succumbs we’ll certainly succumb with them. It is "wisdom of love" rather than the "love of wisdom", and that responsibility toward others precedes any objective searching after truth. This is what Bucky Cantor unknowingly and desperately searched for in his life.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at:

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