Protect Our People or Let Nature Decide?

Alan Zendell, May 7, 2020

When Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said in March that grandparents ought to be willing to sacrifice themselves for their grandchildren’s futures it created an understandable uproar. Then, in April, he said, “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.” My initial reaction was that Patrick was a Trump wannabe pitching the latest game plan to re-open the country to shore up his re-election chances, regardless of the consequences.

But let’s take a step back. As cold and ruthless as that sounds, it’s actually part of a philosophical debate that’s thousands of years old. Many societies have had to address the question of sacrificing today for a better future. I remember a grade school teacher telling my class that Eskimos floated their old away on ice floes when they could no longer produce as much as they consumed. Many Asian cultures (Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese to mention a few) accept that the present generation must sacrifice for those that will follow, and we saw the same thing among the Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants in the last century.

Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the debate amounts to whether we’re willing to endorse policies that we know will result in more deaths, particularly among our seniors, to assure that the economy our kids will depend on doesn’t collapse. The question is whether a failed economy will destroy more lives than the virus will if it’s allowed to spread unchecked. Fears about maintaining the food supply are a warning to take the possibility seriously.

It’s tempting to make this debate all about Trump’s sociopathy, but it’s much bigger than he is and bigger than our country. Sweden is using Stockholm as a living laboratory. The government is testing the hypothesis that the benefit of avoiding mitigation methods to quickly achieve herd immunity will ultimately be worth the cost in lost lives. No one is accusing Sweden of dehumanizing its people, but we won’t know the outcome for many months.

The truth is that we don’t know enough. Epidemiologists and infectious disease researchers differ widely on the percentage of the population that needs to be infected to achieve herd immunity. Published estimates range between thirty and seventy percent. Applying that to the United States suggests that to achieve herd immunity, between 100 and 230 million people would have to be infected. We still don’t know enough about this disease to estimate the toll that would take, not only on seniors, but on health- and immune-compromised young people.

Despite recent optimism over potential treatment drugs and vaccines, we still cannot say when either will be available or how efficacious they’ll be. Many experienced researchers are now cautioning that a COVID-19 vaccine might elude them completely, citing the failed thirty-year quest for an HIV vaccine. Most people who favor re-opening our economy and eventually dispensing with virus mitigation efforts assume that effective medical treatments and/or vaccines will be available by the summer of 2021, but what if they’re not? The much heralded University of Washington model adopted by the Coronavirus Task Force predicts deaths in excess of two million in that eventuality if we resume business as usual.

We also have no real data on how a greatly reduced economy will affect people’s lives. Those who are intent on re-opening society claim that letting the economy fail will kill or wreck the lives of even more millions, but no one really knows. This debate will not end soon, and it could ultimately be resolved in the wrong places. This isn’t an issue for either courts or street demonstrations, especially when demonstrators are armed to the teeth.

One thing we know is our history. We could cite the Spanish Flu of 1917-1918, which killed millions and devastated some of our major cities. Those who advocate re-opening the country quickly could say, “Look, we survived that one, and within years the country was booming again.”

We can also look back at the Great Depression, which is held out as a worst case nightmare scenario if we remain locked down. But we survived that too. We could have let people die of malnutrition and disease back then, and let natural selection decide who the winners and losers would be. Instead we created a safety net for everyone, and America remained strong enough to become the manufacturing colossus that turned the tide in World War 2.

My own view is that if we allow countless more of our people to sicken and die with no clear way to assess the benefit, if any, to our grandchildren, we will be guilty of a crime greater than either slavery or the genocide we perpetrated on the native Americans who preceded us. 

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