On another gorgeous spring day this past Saturday two friends and I picked up burgers at Whole Foods then plopped down on a picnic bench at Parham Bridges to chew the fat so to speak. I found their conversation intriguing, so I’m re-creating it here with their permission as best I can recall.
Ben: “Why didn’t you wear a mask when we met at Whole Foods?”
Sam: “I didn’t think it necessary.”
Ben: “Are you trying to encourage the spread of corona?”
Ben: “Then what gives?”
Sam: “Look, just like in cold and flu season, washing your hands frequently is proven to be most effective against spreading of germs. So I do that and use a hand sanitizer like Dab.”
Ben: “Are you saying all the other measures people are taking, myself included, are superfluous?”
Sam: “Your words, not mine.”
Ben: “Are you trying to make fun of me?”
Sam: “That is not my intent. You should keep wearing a mask if it makes you feel better.”
After that we ate in silence for a while, enjoying the sunshine. Then Ben started back up.
Ben: “I suppose you think we should open the economy back up, too?”
Sam: “What do you think?”
Ben (a little animated): “Absolutely not. Sheltering in place seems to be working. Having come this far we should stay the course to conclusion. Another couple of weeks won’t do much more harm to the economy, but it could make a tremendous difference in slowing, and ultimately ending, the spread of the disease.
Sam: “I see. Who do you think is bearing more of the brunt of the closed economy, the rich or the poor?”
Ben: “The wealthy, of course. They’re the ones whose investment portfolios are taking a hit. The poor have no investment portfolios.”
Sam: “So Lebron is suffering more from the shutdown than the janitors and concession workers at the Staples Center?”
Ben: “OK, you have a point there. But you know what I’m saying.”
Sam: “Perhaps. Let’s pursue it a bit. Your contention is that governments in the U.S. and around the world shutting down economic activities and restricting individual liberties has saved lives. That any economic fall out is inconsequential compared to the value of a human life, and on balance the government actions have done more good than harm.”
Sam: “I see. You state your case well. Many would agree with you.”
Ben: “Thank you.”
Sam: “May I offer you a few things to consider?”
Ben (smiling): “Somehow I knew that was coming, and be my guest.”
Sam: “In any economic downturn it’s the poor who suffer first and most. When a company is forced to lay people off, or worse, goes out of business, it’s the employees who live paycheck to paycheck who get hit the worst. To be sure, everyone suffers, but those employees, or citizens, at the bottom of the rung can’t last as long. And if it’s not just one company that shuts down, but every company, they have nowhere to turn, no new jobs to find.”
“As a result, substance abuse goes up – there’s already anecdotal evidence of increased attendance at AA meetings – with drunk driving fatalities likely to follow. So it’s not just those whose jobs have been lost but those with no relation to them whose lives may be upended. Not to mention a host of other problems that follow.”
“Imagine a middle school or high school kid in JPS who is forced to stay home. Whose parent or parents are also home with no work and no income. You think there’s distance learning going on there? Or more likely abuse because of the stress? And postponed doctor visits for regular healthcare needs compounding any existing problems. And I’m not even counting the quality of life and experiences lost – experiences like high school graduation, a senior’s last baseball season, a track athlete’s battling for a year to come back from injury only to find all his meets cancelled. These things have mental health consequences of their own.”
Ben: “So there are unintended consequences and our chosen course is not perfect. What alternative did we have, though?”
Sam: “Yes, and far from it. What would you say if I told you the Rx was worse than the disease, that the course we have followed has destroyed far more lives than it has saved?”
Ben: “Yeah, right. What’s your source, Fox News?”
Sam: “Try that bastion of conservatism the New York Times. Or the Guardian. Or the Atlantic. (And don’t mistake a humanitarian issue a partisan one.) Even if all the ‘social distancing’ and ‘curve flattening’ measures have been effective – and the jury is still out as to whether they’ve made one whit of difference – that effectiveness pales in comparison to the pain and suffering caused. One can’t interrupt global supply chains indefinitely and expect no consequences. To take India as one example, millions of poor now face the prospect of dying from hunger because they can’t work or move about. COVID-19 is a distant, improbable, and theoretical issue for them. Starvation is a close, probable, reality. And India is not unique.”
Ben: “So what are you saying?”
Sam: “I’m saying if you want to continue destroying the lives of the poor disproportionately – here and around the world – by all means keep businesses closed and limit their ability to work. If you want to help everyone, especially the poor, restore their individual liberties and give them a chance to earn a living.”
Kelley Williams Jr. is a Northsider.