It’s been a while since I’ve written anything outside of my day job. Life has been too busy and challenging to spend much time on anything other than getting from point A to point B. I expect I’ll write more on that later, when the terms of my probation/conditional release/whatever are actually expired and I am free to fully speak my mind. In the meantime, I’m saving a few thoughts for later.
As I write this, the world is deeply immersed in the mass-panic that is COVID-19. In the last week or so, politicians too scared to accept the risk of being caught doing nothing in the face of a crisis have done what politicians do, and reacted strongly. Unfortunately, that is almost never the best course of action to take. The strong reactions have included things like shutting down economic activity on a scale not seen in at least two generations. They have included measures to distance people from their neighbors who would otherwise be the natural people to identify and attempt to help those truly in need. They have included measures that have only deepened the irrational panic and despair that have gripped the general population. The people who have been elected to protect the interests of the general public have made decisions that unquestionably have done grave and (probably) lasting damage.
This behavior is not unique to politicians. It is a product of groupthink, fear, and intolerance. Headlines scream of apocalyptic outcomes, so people get fearful. In a panic to feel a modicum of control in this uncontrollable situation, they do stupid things like buy a year’s supply of toilet paper and trying to check out of the grocery store without using their hands. They worsen the panic as those on the fence see the herd moving that direction and feel like they must be wrong if they are being left behind. Those few free-thinkers who happen to have the fortitude to stand aside from the herd and walk a different path are forcibly rounded up and cajoled into compliance — not necessarily by physical force (yet), but by social constructs we’ve built and exercised through application of the “cancel culture” across a broad array of contentious and emotional issues.
We, as a society, don’t tolerate critical thinking. We don’t listen and evaluate in rational thought. We don’t tolerate those among us who do. We do, however, reward and reinforce those who overreact to sensational things — because they’re doing “something.” Because they say things like “if we only save one life, it’ll be worth it.” Because we don’t want to feel powerless. Because thinking and listening require us to admit we don’t know something and be willing to change our minds.
Death is inevitable. Saving one life at the expense of another isn’t a justifiable action unless the parties involved have consented to it. I doubt the brick mason who will lose everything in the coming months as the economy crumbles, drop into despair, and end his life would have willingly made that trade to extend the life of an elderly person with underlying health concerns who is already far along that path to the grave. While this is an uncomfortable thought, it is the truth. Saving one life comes with costs. And nobody (at least not those in control of the message) is considering those costs.
Families make those kinds of decisions all the time. As parents, grandparents, children, siblings, and spouses grapple with illness, they must evaluate the tradeoff between expensive treatments and the possible benefits and likelihood of success. Sometimes they decide to mortgage everything and proceed, other times they opt for hospice and to make the most out of the time left to them. We are capable of those kind of decisions. The policy makers dictating our current response are not. Nothing of what has been done has been done with anything close to sufficient logic, rational thought, or informed consent.
If I were wrong about all of this, there would be much more discussion about the relative impact of the various counter-virus measures put in place compared with the number and type of people who are predominantly affected by it. We would have an honest discussion about the fact that doing a trillion dollars of damage to our economy to prevent a million deaths would come out to $1,000,000 per death. We would further talk about the fact that there is almost no scenario where we end up with a million deaths, and that we have almost certainly already done a trillion dollars worth of damage to the economy. We would also talk about the fact that that $1,000,000 per death is taken from people who likely would not be directly affected or have an interest in the outcome. Unlike the cancer sufferer who is making a decision based on personal resources and desires, this decision has been made by those with the least to lose. They have decided to take money involuntarily from each of us, in the hopes of reducing the toll by some undefinable and arbitrary amount.
To make matters worse, the current discussion isn’t at all grounded in a sense of community and what the Germans call “Mitleid” (together suffering, roughly). If it were, we would also talk about how we accept tens of thousands of deaths annually from the flu and other related seasonal maladies without more than the occasional 30-second blip on the news encouraging people to get vaccinated. We would talk about the number of deaths due to preventable things like alcohol and drug abuse and the amounts we spend (or don’t spend) to stem that tide. We would talk about intergenerational poverty and the impact it has on families. We would talk about the failures of the prison system that leaves countless people unable to obtain the necessities of life in a legal manner. We would talk about a great many things with urgency. We don’t. We don’t talk. We occasionally yell at each other, but that isn’t talk; not really. Talking involves listening to understand and communicate.
This particular scenario is unique in that it is sensational, and is happening at a time when communication is near universal, ubiquitous, instantaneous, and rewards only the sensational at the expense of critical thought and dry and uncomfortable facts. When the sensation dies down, and we come to the realization that this virus is going to be an inconvenient reality in our lives for the indefinite future, we will relegate it to the unfortunately long list of inconveniences of modern life that we choose not to give any heed — but not before screwing up the lives and futures of hundreds of millions of people.