False choices in dealing with the pandemic

I wrote earlier that we are living in a strange time when things seem normal immediately around us while the news on a larger scale is alarming. Nathan J. Robinson echoes that sentiment and says that only those who know someone who has been seriously and adversely affected by the Covid-19 disease can fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation. He goes on to say that the pandemic has undermined many of the myths that sustain right-wing ideology and nowhere is this clearer than in the crackpot idea floated by Trump, his economic advisors Larry Kudlow, and their conservative allies that we need to ease up on the restrictions in order to ‘save the economy’.

Now, I do want to be fair here, because when you point out how monstrous this position is, they have an argument. “Killing the economy” would also kill people, they say. If people suddenly lose their jobs and their health insurance, and cannot afford to pay their rent or their mortgage, they will suffer terribly, and their health will suffer too. First, let’s note that actual economists, rather than right-wing pundits, believe that since you cannot even really have a functional economy with a deadly pandemic raging through the population and destroying the health system, the shutdown is necessary. As economist Justin Wolfers says, social isolation will “save many many more people from COVID-related deaths than the ensuing economic dislocation will cause. We economists actually measure stuff like this, and it’s not even in the neighborhood of being close.” There is a consensus among both economists and public health experts that “lifting the restrictions would impose huge costs in additional lives lost to the virus — and deliver little lasting benefit to the economy.” Even Larry Summers was “appalled,” and if Larry Summers is appalled by the callousness of a cost-benefit argument you know it’s bad. It’s only far right crackpots and New York Times columnists (how thin the line between them so often is) who dispute the public health experts, which is probably why other countries battling COVID-19 have not been having the ludicrous argument we now find ourselves having.

Robinson says that the reason the US is faced with this situation is because of the callous system we have.

But what if we stopped to ask why workers are left without health insurance and have to forgo care when they lose their jobs? Or why they can’t pay for food and housing?

Well, the reason is that we do not live in a social democracy, where the government provides the basics to people and makes sure they don’t suffer horribly from material deprivation. Instead of just offering free-at-point-of-use healthcare to all, we tie insurance to employment, so that losing work is scary and devastating because it means losing healthcare. We do not provide a basic income, or paid sick leave, or quality public housing, and are unwilling to consider measures (like pausing rent payments and mortgage payments, and halting evictions) that would hurt rich property-owners. The threat that conservatives are holding over people’s heads (“go back to work or misery will ensue”) is the product of a choice. If we choose not to soften the blow for people during the period they can’t work, then it will be a calamity for them.

The “economy” is an abstraction, and saying we need to “restart” or “open” it is highly imprecise and unhelpful. There are some activities that are clearly essential (such as making sure everyone can eat, and have healthcare, and that the lights and the internet are on), while others do not need to be done if doing them means increasing the risk of a pandemic spreading further and overwhelming the hospital system. For example, let us take a housekeeper for idle rich people. There is no reason for that housekeeper to have to expose herself needlessly to the virus before it is contained. Her work is hard but ultimately, the rich person can clean their own damn house if necessary. “Ah, but she will be thrown out of work!” Yes, but it’s physically possible that, during the pandemic, she could be paid to stay home rather than to go out and clean. It is not because her task itself must be done, but because even in a pandemic the idea of paying people not to work is unthinkable to conservatives, and therefore that the false choice is supposedly between firing her and having her go to work.

In fact, I think one reason conservatives are so determined to get back to “business as usual” is that the disease has threatened many of their most cherished dogmas. For example: it’s very clear that coronavirus testing and treatment needs to be free for patients. If patients are getting $9,000 bills for tests, they’re not going to want to get tested. But if coronavirus treatment should be free, it opens up more questions: what about treatment for other diseases that worsen because hospitals are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients? Are we okay with having those people bankrupted by medical expenses? Why shouldn’t we just make healthcare free? If you’re in the Army, you get government-funded and operated Tricare services. You get a lot of free-at-point-of-use services, because the government understands that its Army needs to be fit and healthy. But what about the general population?

He goes on to give example after example of how the crisis is shattering many right-wing dogmas and that is why Trump and so many on the right are anxious to declare the crisis over and urge a return to life as before, though it means risking the lives of many. They are scared that the longer this crisis goes on, the more people will realize the emptiness of their ideology. Of course, what they are doing is denying reality by suggesting something that no public health official recommends. They are whistling past the grave, thinking that by acting as if the crisis if over, it will be over.


  1. flex says

    I think he miss-understands the meaning of dogma.

    The dogma of trickle-down economics has been shattered by the evidence for decades. Yet it persists.

  2. blf says

    (Reconstructed cross-post from PZ’s current [Pandemic and] Political Madness All the Time thread here at FtB.)

    Hair furor will go Librarian (he’s already orange albeit his vocabulary isn’t even up to the level of “Ook!”), Control pandemic first, then open economy, Fed chairman says:

    ‘First order of business will be to get the spread of virus under control, then resume economic activity,’ Powell said.

    The United States “may well be in recession”, but progress in controlling the spread of the coronavirus will determine when the economy can fully reopen, US Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said Thursday in a rare network television interview on NBC’s Today Show.


    Powell’s choice of venue — a network morning show when many Americans are homebound and paying close attention — was itself part of a message that seemed meant to prepare people for the dismal economic data to come, counsel patience in any rush back to work, and reassure that the Fed would act “aggressively” to keep firms and families afloat.

    “We are not experts in pandemic … We would tend to listen to the experts. Dr Fauci said something like the virus is going to set the timetable, and that sounds right to me,” Powell said […].

    “The first order of business will be to get the spread of the virus under control and then resume economic activity.”


  3. says

    “Hair furor will go Librarian”

    I can’t see him willingly handing anyone a book that isn’t The Art of the Deal, and even then, not without them paying him.

  4. machintelligence says

    Tabby @3
    The librarian reference is from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The librarian of the Unseen University (of magic) turned himself into an orangutan and never bothered to change back.The library also has books that are chained down, not to keep them from being stolen, but to keep them from attacking the library users.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *