A friend reposted something on Facebook the other day, an anonymous screed essentially telling people to chill out with the online arguing and offering a call for humility and empathy in these trying times: “All of us need to calm down. Quit telling people who are financially struggling that they don’t care about human lives. Quit telling people who are truly at risk of dying from this virus that they are cowering in fear. Remember that until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes, you should probably be careful in your judgements and subsequent harsh words.” It hit home, because only a week prior I had gotten into heated online arguments with someone I know personally within the #ReOpenNC camp, my main point being — over and over again — that human lives are more important than money. And yet, while this post and its arguments made a sort of sense to me, many things about it still felt off.
“If you are medically vulnerable, you do not need to be a part of what is about to happen,” it urged. “Stay home if you can. If you’re not, or if your financial vulnerability trumps your health concerns, you need to proceed in ways that continue to protect yourself, and the elderly and medically vulnerable around you.” (But how? If you’re both medically and financially vulnerable, what then?)
Recently I’ve heard a lot of people say stuff like this, even those whose ideas and moral character I respect a great deal, talking about herd immunity (using Sweden’s approach as a chief example), how our current situation is unsustainable, and how states reopening at this point in time isn’t a bad thing because the sick or vulnerable can just continue staying home and being safe but the rest of us can all get back to some semblance of normal. This sentiment, though spoken with good intent and the desire on the part of these people to continue safe practices and high levels of personal responsibility, is an inherently flawed but deeply American way of thinking. “Everyone can just be responsible for themselves. Do what’s right for your personal situation. Most of us can go back to work, small businesses and nonessential retailers can reopen but only work or shop there if you feel comfortable doing so, our kids can go back to school but don’t send yours if you still feel unsafe,” etc.
But at what cost? In an article on Vox published April 13th, political economist E. Glen Weyl, who co-authored a paper about mass testing for COVID-19, points out that “40 percent of the workforce — four-zero percent — is in essential sectors, so our social distancing is being applied to maybe half of the people in the country. That slows things down, but there is a huge population where the disease is still almost certainly spreading because we just can’t avoid it.” So what this means is that the numbers we’re seeing and the situation we find ourselves in right now is what happens when only about 40% of the population are in regular contact with other people. As I write this that “situation” is 52,234 deaths — one out of about every 6,337 people in the U.S. dead — and that’s where we’re at with 60% of people staying home for a month. What would it look like if only 10–20% stayed home?
Not to mention the protections that are lost with a broad reopening. If a small business reopens but flounders because of slower traffic due to COVID-19, the business goes under and the government can wipe its hands of it. If your work reopens but you don’t feel safe coming back because you live with someone in a vulnerable population, you may feel pressured to quit or they will simply fire you and replace you. But you will still have no way to pay bills, and because you are not being asked to stay home by your government, your landlord/power company/etc will not have any reason for leniency, not when everyone else is back out there at work again. And as for your kids, they are not immune. Some do experience severe symptoms, while others who show mild or no symptoms can be carriers. Right now kids across the country are in the same situation, having missed the majority of their second semester of the 2019–2020 school year. If we reopen things but only some go back while others stay home because they themselves are vulnerable or their family members are, there will be such inconsistencies in levels of schooling that this generation will have to deal with the fallout for years to come.
A pandemic is a poor place for the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. It is the perfect scenario in which to see “equality vs equity” arguments play out. Because while what’s good for the minority is inconvenient, scary, difficult, life-altering, and maybe even ruinous for the majority, what’s good for the majority is deadly for the minority.
The Free Dictionary defines the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” as a verb meaning “to improve one’s life or circumstance through one’s own efforts, rather than relying on others.” But a pandemic does not care about your independent spirit. It will infect anyone, and spread to anyone else, regardless of that person’s position in life, financial status, or ability to take care of themselves or their loved ones. If I’m doing what’s best for me, and everyone else is doing what’s best for them, then the weakest and most vulnerable among us will die. Survival of the fittest means sacrificing those who cannot help themselves. This is a cruel sentiment even in the best of times, as the poor and disenfranchised among us can attest to, but it is even more callous when the “sacrifice” in question involves not only quality of life, but actually staying alive.
You may have seen a picture like this one before, and the politics of giving more to some and less to others might rankle. Isn’t the American Dream that we give the same to everyone, and let each individual make of it what they will? But some people started out with less than you did, so getting the same as you do still doesn’t help them to the same degree. It doesn’t allow them to see over that wall that blocks their vision. That’s the “equality vs. equity” argument — the idea that equality still allows for some to suffer while equity helps everyone.
Maybe you reject this thinking with every facet of your being. Maybe your inner economist or philosopher screams that that’s not right. But a pandemic doesn’t care what you think. A pandemic strikes the rich and the poor, people with mortgages and people renting and people who live on the street, those who are single and those who are childless and those who have eleven mouths to feed. A pandemic strikes those with savings accounts, those living hand-to-mouth, those in massive amounts of debt, and those who have lost everything. So if the “wall” we have to clear here is surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, asking for equal treatment (i.e., we all get to decide our own levels of being involved with or separate from a reopened society) is asking for injustice, because what’s right for you may literally kill others. Asking you to give up more so that someone else can live isn’t fair, but it’s morally right.
Freedoms and rights are only guaranteed if they don’t infringe upon someone else’s. If your liberty and pursuit of happiness take away someone else’s life, how can you call that “justice for all”? So going back to that original Facebook post, here’s the thing I struggled with: saying that I believe those who want to reopen society to establish herd immunity don’t care about human lives may be harsh, but is it unsound? Follow the logic.
There’s a short story/Twilight Zone episode/2009 film with a fascinating premise: A family who is struggling financially wakes one day to a knock at the door. A stranger stands there, holding a mysterious box with a button on top. He tells them that if they push the button, they will receive an enormous sum of money, enough to save them from utter ruin. But if they do this, a random person they have never met will die. The moral question at the heart of this story is clear: do you value your dire need over the life of someone you do not know?
Boxes have arrived on the doorstep of every person in our nation. Your personal decision has deadly consequences for someone else. And as unpleasant as this dilemma is, your priorities do say something about who you are as a person and the value you place on human lives. Regardless of how this all turns out, you will have to live with your choices. Others may not have that opportunity.