As the coronavirus rages across the country, killing dozens of people a day, overwhelming hospitals, and demolishing the lives of anyone who's not able to keep making an income from home, our government has started to seriously float a new strategy to deal with the deadly global pandemic: let potentially millions of people die long, excruciating deaths in order to more quickly repair the economy.
I've spent the last 16 days hiding in my apartment to do whatever I can to not get sick and to "flatten the curve," a mantra we've been holding on to for dear life as the world falls apart around us. The idea is that by extremely limiting our movement and contact with other people, we'll be able to slow the spread of coronavirus to a pace that our healthcare system could better manage. Hospitals in New York City, an epicenter of the pandemic, are already overwhelmed. The number of available beds is running out faster than the state and hospitals are able to increase capacity, the number of available and life saving ventilators is quickly dwindling, and healthcare providers are already coming in to work potentially sick and without appropriate protective gear.
Disaster has already struck. It's foolish and dangerous to pretend otherwise. The best we can do now is reduce the amount of human suffering, or at least that's what I thought the goal was when we said "we're all in this together." But the President, the governor of New York, and countless economic palm readers have suggested that some number of easily avoidable deaths is perhaps acceptable and even good if it means people can start going back to work, buying consumer goods, and pulling the stock market up from its weeks-long nosedive.
"WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!," Trump tweeted Sunday. Tuesday morning, he tweeted "This is not about the ridiculous Green New Deal. It is about putting our great workers and companies BACK TO WORK!"
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo laid this concept out with a simple, easy to understand image: a teetering see-saw with the mission to "Protect Lives" on one end and the sacramental concept of "Economic Viability" on the other.
How can we keep these two apparently conflicting ideas in balance? According to some in government and many economists, if we let our desire to protect lives have all the weight, the economy will fall apart more than it already has, creating instability we haven't seen since the Great Depression, so some amount of death is necessary to keep the economy afloat.
The proposition is ghoulish even by its own twisted logic. We have been looking at a lot of numbers, charts, and graphs in recent weeks: quickly escalating curves, expanding red circles, and exponentially larger figures counting the dead. They are frightening on their own, to be sure, but so is the physical horror behind each of these figures.
It's instructive and not an exaggeration to say that for every avoidable death that we allow as a society in favor of financial gains, we are actively choosing to literally drown a human being in their own blood.
Take, for example, this account in ProPublica from a respiratory therapist in Louisiana who describes how quickly and violently even healthy young people succumb to COVID-19:
“In my experience, this severity of ARDS [acute respiratory distress syndrome] is usually more typical of someone who has a near drowning experience—they have a bunch of dirty water in their lungs—or people who inhale caustic gas. Especially for it to have such an acute onset like that. I’ve never seen a microorganism or an infectious process cause such acute damage to the lungs so rapidly. That was what really shocked me.”
“It first struck me how different it was when I saw my first coronavirus patient go bad. I was like, Holy shit, this is not the flu. Watching this relatively young guy, gasping for air, pink frothy secretions coming out of his tube and out of his mouth. The ventilator should have been doing the work of breathing but he was still gasping for air, moving his mouth, moving his body, struggling. We had to restrain him. With all the coronavirus patients, we’ve had to restrain them. They really hyperventilate, really struggle to breathe. When you’re in that mindstate of struggling to breathe and delirious with fever, you don’t know when someone is trying to help you, so you’ll try to rip the breathing tube out because you feel it is choking you, but you are drowning."
Even if we were to accept that subjecting people to this hell in service of the economy was a worthwhile tradeoff, the problem is that the concept of "economic viability," which is presented as infallible and equal to human life, is entirely arbitrary.
It is no more economically viable to let countless die in service of unscrupulous capitalism than it is to let Amazon, one of the most profitable and powerful companies in the world pay no federal income taxes. It's not inherently more economically viable to let its CEO, and others like him who hoard hundreds of billions in wealth, than it is to redistribute it to those in need in order to save lives.
There are too many examples of this fallacy to list here because our entire society is built to support the lie of "economic viability," which in reality is just the system by which wealth and power is concentrated and protected by the few at the expense of all of us.
It's worth thinking about the nature of the current disaster. Given that its worst effects come from our own failures—the failure of the American healthcare system, the failure to protect labor, and human life, and the general moral failure of capitalism—the coronavirus crisis seems less like a sudden disruption and more like a slow car crash that started decades ago. Our institutions have long been gutted, pared down, privatized, and otherwise optimized for grift and profit, and fatal outcomes were always part of that calculus. Regardless of a pandemic, which is now totally exposing the rot, the same systems kill many thousands of people every day in America and all over the world due to the same failings.
This isn't to downplay the tragedy of the pandemic, instead, it shows that the capitalists who run things have always seen things in terms of a ghoulish PowerPoint. This mindset was always going to lead to mass death, and indeed already does—due to car crashes, toxic consumer goods, for-profit healthcare, the gig economy, and cut-corner construction, just to name a few—and will continue to as long as profit and recklessness are pillars of our society, as opposed to solidarity and foresight.