What’s at stake in society’s consideration for reI have written previously about the question staring us all down: Do we take all possible measures to preserve human life or do we back off extreme measures for there to be a functioning economy? This seems all the more pressing considering that the disease’s impact seems drastically far off the original lethality estimates. Meanwhile, each new week brings further devastating economic news.-opening is a more capacious understanding of “public health.”
As the lockdown proceeds with no official end date in sight, we must turn our attention to a new reality confronting us: It is impossible to proceed with a lockdown to prevent COVID-19 deaths without other harms resulting. This was an intellectual argument only but a few weeks ago.
But now, as exhaustion and unemployment mount, the question of trade-offs seems more vivid and more urgent. This is because we cannot have an economy—a measure of public health by its own standard—if we wait until there is no longer anyone dying from COVID-19. The economic harms may not be as totalizing as death, but they are the harms that eventually revert society back to the Hobbesian state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
What’s at stake in society’s consideration for re-opening is a more capacious understanding of “public health.” Such a conception must never include anything less than the number of deaths that result from COVID-19, but must also include work, social health, and the economy as well. Such a framing in the emergence of a post-COVID world will require our politicians to clearly communicate this moral reality in their public discourse and decision-making.
A broader conception of public health demands that we confront the moral realities that such a broader conception would necessarily entail.
I have written previously about the question staring us all down: Do we take all possible measures to preserve human life or do we back off extreme measures for there to be a functioning economy? This seems all the more pressing considering that the disease’s impact seems drastically far off the original lethality estimates. Meanwhile, each new week brings further devastating economic news.
Appealing to Double Effect theory, what I wrote then, I stand by: Pursuing one or the other does not mean intentional harm to the other. To frame our moment as “economy versus life” is unnecessary, contrived, and characteristic of the type of thinking that leads to confusion. It begins from the wrong assumption about our world—that recovery must mean the total allocation of wisdom and resources against all other worthwhile ends. This is not how the real world operates. In any given home, a parent must both bandage their child’s wounded knee while also feeding their child lunch.
To relate this thinking to our current moment, a more balanced public mindset would understand it is possible to pursue wise social distancing policies that help preserve life while staving off economic ruin as a measure of public health. But such thinking is possible only if we’re willing to accept tragic realities: In the same way that it is impossible to prevent children from falling and hurting themselves, it is impossible to prevent all deaths resulting from COVID-19.
The longer the lockdown goes on, the more inevitable this conclusion becomes. We need to beware of reducing all situations to mere binaries: right or wrong, black or white, economic health or human life. A better framing, one of discretion and prudence, is to understand that public health and economic health are simultaneous and intertwined partners in the pursuit of human flourishing. Feeding a family, social interaction that blunts depression, the psychological benefit of good work—pursuing these good ends are valuable alongside attempts to suppress the disease and save lives. All of this means that the world’s stage and the moral realities confronting it, are more complex than simplistic straw man arguments that make the response all of one thing or the other.