“Of course everybody wants to save every life they can – but the question is, towards what end, ultimately?” So said former presidential hopeful Chris Christie recently.
His was just the latest in a string of such pronouncements since COVID-19 precautions forced the closure of many businesses. The lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, got the ball rolling in March, declaring that the country should not be sacrificed to protect elderly people from contracting the virus. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck followed suit. Thomas Friedman got in on the act over at The New York Times, concluding that we faced a choice between killing the economy or those with a high risk of dying anyway.
Most recently, a planning commissioner in California wrote that we should allow nature to take its course eliminating the sick and the weak.
One hundred years ago, two German writers, lawyer Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche, published a book that offered a similar, if more far-reaching, perspective. It would become one of the urtext of the Nazi regime with its argument that some lives are not worth living, and it helped shape the Aktion-T4 program in which many of those lives not worth living were forcibly ended by the state. Binding and Hoche were by no means working in a vacuum.
When supplies ran short in Germany during the First World War, the underfeeding of inmates in psychiatric hospitals to free up food for the army resulted in some 30% of them dying. Their argument did little more than extend the logic of a plan already being realized.
The language today — risk profile, herd immunity — may seem different and more scientific, but make no mistake: The result looks little different. Once we walk down the path of imagining that we can determine the worth of someone else’s life, it gets easier and easier to agree that the state should play a role in determining whose life is worth living. Years ago, it was those suffering from mental instability. Today, the virus-vulnerable elderly. And tomorrow? Anyone’s guess. But once we begin to routinize the question of which lives are worth living, the categories will snowball. It’s clearly already happening.
But what if restarting the existing economy ignores how much this pandemic is a result of economic choices we have made in the past? If you look at the timeline of epidemic and pandemic diseases, what becomes terrifyingly clear is how much more frequent they have become over time, and how much closer together they now occur. Arguably the 21st century has already seen five such disasters: Ebola, MERS, SARS, swine flu and now COVID-19.
If we throw in the ongoing HIV epidemic, the mortality rate is staggering. And these epidemics arise in large part from conditions that we humans have created. Viruses are opportunistic, hopping on to hosts to do their own work of survival and reproduction. Our food chain, our heavy reliance on pharmaceuticals, our consumer desires, our jet-setting tendencies have all ensured the creation of favorable environments in which viruses can multiply and evolve.
If we merely return to what we’ve been doing, even leaving climate change aside, we run the risk of ultimately sacrificing far more lives as events of this sort recur more often. Sure, we can work on vaccines, antibody tests and the like, but at some point, we will have to admit that although they might be vital to our continued existence, they represent little more in reality than sticking a finger in the dyke.
Fiscal, environmental, health care, firearms and other policies enacted (or sometimes relaxed) in recent years have already threatened the average life span in America, more so for the poor and for minorities. Getting the economy back on track, returning to what we have been doing, willfully ignores how much the economic systems in place have actually led us to this crisis.
If climate change alone did not suffice to bring us to our senses, could COVID-19 convince us? If our leaders really want a bright future for their kids and grandkids, then the last thing we need is a return to the status quo. That is something Christie, Patrick, Beck and others need to realize.
Philippa Levine is a professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.