Amidst all the text messages flying in around the clock these days, one from an unknown number yesterday caught me off guard: Was I available to play a doubles match on Wednesday in the neighborhood?
What?! That was my first thought, and that is exactly how I replied. She patiently texted back: I was just wondering if you wanted to play some tennis this Wednesday. Instead of snapping I heard you, WTF? I politely but firmly declined, and added a PSA about the virtues of social distancing. I never got a reply, but that’s ok.
I’m at peace with people’s scorn. Heap it on me. There are still so many who think people like me are alarmist, watch the news too much, and are destroying the economy. If only these doomsayers would quit already, then the state of the world would be just fine, they say. If only so many people hadn’t canceled their ski trips, the resorts in Colorado could have stayed open, they say (as seen on Next-door but since deleted).
And my old self would have hated that. I would have wanted them to SEE that I am right, and admit that they are wrong. That is how partisanship works, I suppose. All about who can shout the loudest about their side’s virtue. And don’t get me wrong, I’m continuing to “shout” in my fight trying to convince people that social distancing is the only way, trying every day to get public life to shut down a little bit more by sending messages to the Governor, by encouraging others to do so, by helping spread the effort to sew face masks, whatever it takes.
But now I know: I don’t WANT to be right. I hope to GOD that THEY are right, that I’m overly alarmist, and that this will all pass without too much fuss. And if that happens, I won’t be resentful that my side “lost.” I’ll be overjoyed if all of us “win” by staying alive.
Remember the story of the two women with the baby and Solomon’s sword? The true mother ends up giving her baby away, because of course only the fake mother would willingly sacrifice it to prove that she is right. It makes me think of that. If you truly want to save someone, or in this case a lot of someones, you are willing to sacrifice what you thought was the most important thing.
My daughter, a college freshman, is pursuing a career in public health. What an extraordinary time to embark on this journey while events, in real time, reveal all the things that can go wrong so spectacularly when public health has not been a priority. She read an article to me the other day, and I think it was Anthony Fauci who was quoted, I can’t find it now. But what he said stuck with me. In a public health crisis, he said, you will know that you’ve done enough when it will look like you did too much. It will have been just right.
History bears this out. Another article – no time now to actually find all these links to properly cite, but trust me on this – described the 1918 flu epidemic using two very different examples of how authorities reacted. In Philadelphia, the city health commissioner (or whatever the exact position) was reluctant to cancel parades and such, and decided to let public life go on. Not so in St. Louis. THAT health commissioner became hugely unpopular because he canceled all events, life came to a standstill, economic activity took a big hit. I don’t even know if he ever got any credit in his lifetime. In fact, probably not – precisely because afterwards it may have looked as if he was overly cautious. I’m sure plenty of people accused him of destroying livelihoods. But I sure hope he took satisfaction in the fact that he saved countless of lives in St. Louis vs. the staggering death toll in Philadelphia. Google it – you just have to look at the death toll and the infection curves in each city, and it’s obvious that one man deserves more credit than the other.
If, that is, you value life over wealth. I always thought that this was understood. That when you have a choice between health and wealth, as an individual, you would choose health. It’s a no-brainer, right? And doesn’t it follow then that a society you’d want to live in should also value health over wealth? (Setting aside for a moment that it doesn’t have to be a binary choice.)
But increasingly, I can see that this isn’t so. Every crisis brings with it a new clarity, as people say things out loud that they normally would only think. The leaders who have stepped up in this pandemic, the ones whose news conferences we tune into to get much needed guidance but also comfort, seem to be the ones that adhere to this principle. To safeguard our health, they are asking us to sacrifice our wealth (although at the beginning, they were just asking us to sacrifice a little convenience, and even that seemed too hard for many.)
And then there are the other ones. The ones who are petrified by the looming collective loss of wealth. Don’t get me wrong, it is indeed horrifying. We will all have to bear the economic consequences of this tragedy, and I’m aware that for many they will be much more severe than for people like me. I’m also aware of ideas out there to restart the economy by somehow working on controlled infections to achieve herd immunity, and I’m not decrying such ideas. Calm heads indeed can sit down and figure out an approach that ends up having a lower cost to society than our panicked shutting down.
But what appalls me is hearing things like It’ll be best for the economy if we let things run their course. These old people dying is just the price we have to pay, or our economy takes too big a hit.
I don’t even want to get into all the arguments of why I think that’s fundamentally wrong (and actually also short-sighted).
At this point in time, if you’re saying “the cure is worse than the problem,” I don’t think you fully understand that “the problem” is millions of people dying who could potentially be saved.
We are for sure getting a real-life crash course on how to solve that riddle we might remember from ethics class – diverting a train that could maybe kill 5 people, but maybe none at all, onto a track that will kill one for sure.