It wasn’t all that long ago — just a decade, in fact — that Republicans and conservatives were trying to derail the Affordable Care Act by claiming that it would set up “death panels” to deny care to the sick, the elderly and the disabled.
How times have changed. Now some Republicans and conservatives are coming out in favor of sacrificing human health, the better to restore health to the stock market.
This is a radical rethinking of human morality: Some 80 years ago, Americans sacrificed their lives and treasure to vanquish a threat to the very existence of civilization. Today, we’re hearing the argument that we should sacrifice the bedrock principles of civilization so that the survivors can live without sacrificing their comfort.
“I think people might get the misinterpretation — [we’re] just going to lift everything up.... That’s not going to happen.
Here’s Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, 69, unburdening himself Monday to Tucker Carlson on Fox News.
“I’m not living in fear of COVID-19,” he said, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. “What I’m living in fear of is what’s happening to the country.... As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all Americans love for your children and grandchildren? If that’s the exchange, I’m all in.... Let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living.”
Patrick was channeling President Trump, who had tweeted the day before his desire to end the social distancing and quarantining practices rolled out to fight the pandemic by Easter, April 12.
Trump’s theme, as he repeated it on a Fox News program Tuesday, was that “many people — in my opinion, more people — are going to die if we allow this to continue. We have to go back to work. Our people want to go back to work.”
He predicted “suicides by the thousands” if we continue social distancing. He suggested that the “cure” could be “worse than the problem.”
Trump’s words have been echoed throughout the conservative political world. Before we explore this outbreak of feverish amorality, we should observe that the idea of ending the nationwide practice of social distancing by April 12 is regarded by the medical and epidemiological community as insanely premature.
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Signs have emerged already, in California, New York and abroad that this method is beginning to work — but only beginning. Lifting the quarantines before time would invite a resurgence of the contagion, at immense cost in lives and livelihoods.
“I think people might get the misinterpretation — [we’re] just going to lift everything up,” Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert who remains the most measured voice in the crisis, said this week. “That’s not going to happen.”
He said data, not sentiment or emotion, should dictate how and when to allow a resumption of social activity.
Backers of Trump’s unscientific notions appear to place great store in the principle of social Darwinism, which is that the strong will survive and the weak — well, we can’t stop to care about them.
Fox’s Brit Hume (76 and a grandparent) called Patrick’s suggestion that seniors effectively sacrifice themselves for the good of their offspring an “entirely reasonable viewpoint.” He noted that thousands of Americans die every year from the flu, yet “we don’t shut down the economy to save every single life that’s threatened by disease; we just don’t.”
Hume, plainly no expert on epidemiology, just doesn’t get the distinction between the flu and the novel coronavirus. The flu doesn’t create a surge of patients that overwhelms hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units to the point that its sufferers, not to mention other patients, can’t get treatment.
The flu doesn’t create a demand for life-saving ventilators for patients or protective gear for doctors and nurses that can’t be met, thus threatening providers’ lives. But those phenomena have happened in places like Italy and are surfacing in parts of the U.S. such as New York City. Hume, ostensibly a journalist, should listen to those on the front lines if he wants to know what he’s talking about before pontificating.
Some supporters of the Trumpian view have tried to clothe their viewpoint as a sober weighing of the options.
“The extreme reactionary measures to the pandemic focus only on the benefits of those actions, entirely ignoring the costs,” wrote a contributor to the Federalist, a right-wing website.
“Of course, it sounds very callous to talk about considering the costs. It seems harsh to ask whether the nation might be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die.... Yet honestly facing reality is not callous, and refusing even to consider whether the present response constitutes an even greater evil than the one it intends to mitigate would be cowardly.”
Another Federalist writer proposed taking a page from the “chicken pox parties” of the era before the chicken pox vaccine, when parents would deliberately expose their children to an infected schoolmate with the goal of giving them lifelong immunity to that virus. He suggested that coronavirus parties would help create a herd immunity that could slow or halt the spread of the new pathogen.
Experts have argued that this is, essentially, nuts. No one can be sure of contracting COVID-19 in a less than life-threatening form, and the path to herd immunity of a novel virus is long and unpredictable. It should be instructive that chicken pox parties are utterly unnecessary today, thanks to a vaccine available since 1995.
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There’s also an emergent viewpoint on the religious right that the aggressive social measures against the coronavirus somehow tamper with God’s will.
“There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost,” wrote R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, a right-wing Christian website. “Satan rules a kingdom in which the ultimate power of death is announced morning, noon, and night.... The mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere. Governor Cuomo and other officials insist that death’s power must rule our actions.”
Underlying all this is the notion that the economy consists almost exclusively of stock and bond portfolios. This is the category error of mistaking the scoreboard for the game. The idea that human lives should be sacrificed to preserve corporate earnings is, at heart, medieval.
The country we live in isn’t the stock market. It’s the lives of people, their families, their aspirations. Trump and his acolytes propose to sacrifice them to save a mythical economy measured in the short-term vacillations of the Dow Jones industrial Average.
What’s most contemptible about those who suggest exposing the population to the ravages of a novel virus is that most of them think they’re exempt. It’s seldom the martyrs themselves who speak glowingly of the virtues of martyrdom.
People like Patrick, who profess the willingness to place their own lives on the line. I don’t buy it. Patrick claims that he’s received an outpouring of support from seniors just like him. I don’t buy that either. Patrick and Trump think they live in a bubble that will keep COVID-19 from their door and pose no threat, therefore, to their nearest and dearest. They’re wrong. The virus respects no such boundaries.
A week or so ago, a young high school graduate named Brady Sluder made himself famous by giving an interview from a spring break party in Florida in which he said, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying. We’re just out here having a good time. Whatever happens, happens.”
When he got home, he realized the folly of his ways and issued a heartfelt apology via Instagram. “Listen to your communities and do as health officials say,” he wrote. “Life is precious. Don’t be arrogant and think you’re invincible like myself.... Simply apologizing doesn’t justify my behavior. I’m simply owning up to my mistakes and taking full responsibility for my actions.”
Sluder isn’t yet in his 20s. Patrick and Trump have at least four decades on him. When will they learn?