Let’s get ready for this week’s edition of our ongoing series, “Jazz Suggests Awful Things We Should Do.”
This week I’d like to focus on the recent stories involving President Trump’s hope of “restarting” the economy in a few weeks at most. It’s something that one analyst at The Hill described as Trump’s “biggest gamble of his presidency.”
One response that came to that suggestion was politely but firmly stated by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during his daily update on the coronavirus yesterday. Many people, including me, have been impressed with Cuomo’s daily briefings. They’re informative and hopeful. But when he came to the subject of lifting the lockdowns around the nation, he was firmly against it. His reason? We have to prioritize human life over the economy. He reiterated that point later on Twitter, saying he wouldn’t put a dollar value on any human life, including that of his own mother or yours.
My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable.
We will not put a dollar figure on human life.
We can have a public health strategy that is consistent with an economic one.
No one should be talking about social darwinism for the sake of the stock market.
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 24, 2020
The message is clear. We can’t prioritize the economy over human life.
But if we pull the lens back a bit and look at our own history as a nation and the bigger picture, that’s a lie, isn’t it? In fact, we do that all the time. To borrow a much-maligned example being tossed around in the press, look at how many people die in auto accidents each year. In the United States, we average more than 35,000. Globally the figure is over a million. And that’s actually a lot lower than the numbers were before we started putting better safety features on cars and trucks. But it’s also even more people than some of the sunnier estimates we’ve seen for the death toll from COVID-19. And it’s also more than die from the flu.
And yet I’ve never heard Andrew Cuomo, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi or anyone else suggest that we need to shut down all highway traffic because the danger of losing even one precious life to an accident is too great of a price to pay. Before you decide I’m just being cynical or deliberately argumentative, please bear with me and read on.
Why don’t we shut down all the roads? (And while we’re at it, the railways and airlines because people die in crashes of trains and planes also.) The answer is obvious. Because it would end the economy and send us back to an early 17th century model of living. (Though some might argue that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, I’m sure.)
Look… people die in hurricanes and tornados. We call such things “Acts of God.” Some people die in accidents. What they have in common is that for the most part, they are all beyond our control without taking impractical and economically ruinous precautions, and even then nothing is certain. But the other threat on the horizon is neither an accident nor beyond our control. That is the unavoidable arrival of a great depression like none we’ve seen in a century if we leave the economy shut down for too long. And that won’t go away on its own in a few weeks based on some executive declaration.
The coronavirus may have resulted from bad decisions by people who didn’t understand the consequences of all of that food mixing in the wet markets, but once the genie was out of the bottle, the coronavirus became, for purposes of this discussion an accidental Act of God. We’re fighting it as hard as we can and I partially agree with Governor Cuomo that we have to do this intelligently. It’s not an all or nothing, binary decision. But half measures (or far less) in terms of avoiding another great depression aren’t going to do.
I’m not talking about economic Darwinism here or saying we should just start digging mass graves for all the senior citizens. (Including yours truly.) We can turn the economy on again and do it in a smart way that saves us from a decade of economic despair while minimizing the health risks, can’t we? I will again agree with Cuomo that it would be reckless and irresponsible to send everyone back to work at once. But his plan to send only those who have survived the disease and developed immunity back on the job is far too timid. It will take too long to get the test kits distributed and identify them all, and even then, we’re probably only talking about a few tens of thousands of people at most, at least for now.
Surely there is a way to keep the oldest and those with other, underlying health issues (making them more vulnerable to death) isolated at home and eligible for government support. At the same time, the young and the healthy could return to work, but with better practicing of social distancing and cleanliness at the workplace. As more people get the disease and survive it, the herd immunity grows and we slow the rate of additional infections until we have either a vaccine or a working antiviral medication. If we got a significant body of people back to being productive, the total burden would be decreased and shared. And something has to give soon. Congress is on the verge of essentially taking two trillion dollars (roughly 10% of our GDP) and setting it on fire. How many times can we do that before we hit the point of no return?
If you wouldn’t shut down all of the highways to prevent a single person from dying in a car crash, if you wouldn’t ban the sale of cleaning products to prevent accidental poisonings, if you wouldn’t destroy all the bridges to prevent anyone from leaping off of them, why would you send the nation (and the world) into a great depression to prevent some possible deaths from a disease that was totally beyond our control to prevent and will take time to bring to heel?
I say this as a person in their sixties who has had respiratory issues. If I catch the coronavirus, there’s a more than fair probability I will die. Of course, I might get hit by a truck tomorrow. I’m going to die eventually. I’m not saying that the possibility I’m suggesting is pleasant. I’m not saying we should be complacent about any preventable deaths. But the alternative is pretty grim also. Are you sure that driving the number of COVID-19 deaths down to the absolute, conceivable minimum is worth the price we’ll wind up paying?