In a perfect world, we could protect the health of our citizens while also maintaining the strength of our economy. But in a world with limited resources and inept leadership, there is tension between these competing interests, and every one of us will have to answer a simple question in the coming days:
When does the value we place on the health of our economy supersede the value we place on human life?
Many politicians have already given opposing answers. By expediting the quarantine timeline, Trump chose to value corporate profit, as did the Lieutenant Governor of Texas who claimed that “older people would rather die than let the virus harm the US economy.” Meanwhile, the governors of New York, California and Ohio have thus far prioritized the health and safety of their residents by implementing stay-in-place orders at great cost to their economies.
As voters, we make similar calculations every time we cast our ballot, even when it’s not entirely explicit. Under capitalism, we are accustomed to thinking of every problem in terms of monetary gains and losses, but this pandemic is giving us an opportunity to reconsider these assumptions. Those who prioritize life are abiding by orders to self-quarantine, and are sacrificing their own financial well-being to preserve their community’s health. This ethos motivates people to call on the federal government to build hospital beds, provide free testing, and give states resources to invest in their health care systems.
Responding in a rare moment of bipartisan unity, Congress approved a $2 trillion spending bill that addresses many of these social and economic concerns, demonstrating that our government is clearly far more capable of providing assistance to the general public than previously imagined. Disregarding the nail in the coffin for most social spending programs — how we are going to pay for it? — the bill puts checks directly into the hands of Americans; suspends student loan payments; expands unemployment benefits; protects against foreclosures and evictions; and provides $500 billion to businesses, among other provisions.
A growing number of Americans are starting to voice their opposition to Congress’ actions, and the quarantines ordered by state governors, by blatantly disregarding social distancing to mitigate the harms to our economy. Protestors across the country took to the streets over the weekend in a terrifying show of recalcitrance spurred by Trump’s tweets to “liberate” the States. This rising tension is forcing us to come to terms with a difficult question that exposes our underlying values: to what extent are we willing to destabilize our economic well-being in order to save the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable population.
We’ve gone through similar value-laden junctures in our history before. In order to overcome the economic meltdown of the Great Depression, Americans were forced to reconsider the relationship between the federal government and the economy. Although it chipped away at the ethos of our staunchly capitalist society, the Federal Government began offering public work projects, financial regulatory reforms, and social safety nets to lift people out of poverty. This was an acknowledgement that the free-market cannot survive without government regulation, and that a rising tide lifts all ships.
Faced with another once-in-a-century crisis, we are again asked to reconsider some foundational assumptions of how our society operates. We are potentially sacrificing the strength of our economy in order to save the people who make it up, and in doing so, we are learning that a vibrant economy is inextricably tied to a healthy population.
In the coming days and weeks, as opposition grows to the government efforts to contain this virus, we must ask whether we are willing to justify exposing the most vulnerable members of our society to illness and possible death in order to buoy the stock market’s crash. Trump’s insistence on having “the country opened up by Easter,” to the dismay of public health officials, signals that he is willing to do so at a moment’s notice. At some point, the bipartisan support for addressing this pandemic in a way that prioritizes human life will be stress tested past its breaking point. Undoubtedly, it will be the poorest rung of our society who will be asked to enter the front lines in pulling the veil back on what our society truly values: life or profits. It’s easy to stand behind empty patriotic rhetoric and ask other people to sacrifice themselves for the health of the economy, but if the moment ever comes, would you be willing to die for someone else’s 401K? If the answer is no, don’t ask other people to do it for you.