Coronavirus crisis: Shall one die for the sake of the economy?

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By Max Herriman

A Covid-19 victim is carted away in a funeral car in New York in April

On March 24, Dan Patrick, the 69-year-old lieutenant governor of Texas told Tucker Carlson of Fox News, “You know, Tucker, no one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” Patrick continued, “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in… That doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that,” he added. “I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me.”

Patrick and others claim that allowing people to go back to their physical place of work and opening restaurants, bars and retail shops would enable the economy to “return to normal.” However, at the time of Patrick’s interview, the pandemic in the US was still not at its peak anywhere in that country. Those who made this argument around that time and in early April, principally on the right of politics, must have known that relaxing social distancing prematurely and without necessary safeguards such as extensive testing, effective contact tracing and isolation would result in more cases of COVID-19 and more deaths. Potentially, a lot more deaths.

However, if social distancing measures were to be relaxed immediately and the US “opened up”, would people really be likely to dine in restaurants, gather in bars or indulge in retail shopping? Perhaps at first, yes, but as media reports of illness increased and more and more people had first-hand experience of knowing someone who had become seriously ill or died from COVID-19, would people be inclined to stay home and avoid high-risk places? Very probably.

Evidence from Japan shows that the government has been slow to encourage social distancing, did not conduct widespread testing and has not closed workplaces, shops or restaurants. Instead, it opted for a policy of “cluster response.” However, writing in Science magazine, Denis Normile explains that as COVID-19 case numbers in Japan began to skyrocket in mid-April: “Most movie theaters, museums, and department stores have shut their doors. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government reports that morning rush hour ridership on city subway lines last week was down 60% from precrisis levels. Many restaurants and bars have closed or are open for takeout only.”

Even with the economy remaining “open,” on April 20 The Japan Times reported: “Taro Saito, executive research fellow at the NLI Research Institute, said even at more than ¥100 trillion ($1 trillion), the government’s economic support package is insufficient. Saito said it was likely unemployment rate would rise to 3.9 per cent from 2.4 per cent in February, with the fallout from the pandemic not yet factored into the official data. He also estimates the number of unemployed will hit 2.72 million in the fourth quarter, up from 1.56 million at the same time last year.”

Deserted Times Square in New York amid a city-wide lockdown

Therefore, were any economy to be “opened up” prematurely with insufficient safeguards and pandemic numbers increased as a result, unemployment figures would likely still be staggering. This would certainly appear to be so for the US. According to the Pew Research Center citing the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, more than 157 million Americans were in the workforce in 2019 with 71 per cent of non-farm employees working in the services sector, while 16.7 million Americans were employed in leisure and hospitality. A further 12.9 million Americans worked in manufacturing, which would also be affected detrimentally with falling retail sales. In the past month or so, around 26 million Americans have lost their job. These job losses might have been delayed if there was no lockdown but would probably not have been avoided, and the delay would have been at the cost of thousands more dying.

So, one way or the other, the economy was going to take a hit. Why then would politicians, corporate figures and media commentators on the popular right want to send many more citizens to their death for dubious, unsustainable economic benefit? What is going on? Were these entreaties nothing more than short-sighted, ill-considered grasps in panic for a return to normality? Are they just manifest stupidity?

Or is the agenda for premature, ill-prepared opening of the economy more callous and deeply rooted in ideology than mere concern over economic numbers of the day?

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Without doubt, had US states followed the advice of governor Dan Patrick one month ago, there would now be a good many less grandparents out there like him. Patrick argued, “As the president said, the mortality rate is so low. Do we have to shut down the entire country for this? I think we can get back to work.” At the time he spoke, Johns Hopkins University had reported 417,582 confirmed COVID-19 cases globally and 18,612 deaths. On April 25, following weeks of strict social distancing with about one-third of the world population in lockdown, the number of reported cases globally approached 2.8 million and there had been almost 200,000 reported coronavirus deaths, over 52,000 of which were in the US. At one point, the number of deaths in New York alone increased by more than 600 each day, while falling below 500 deaths on April 20 for the first time in over two weeks. The BBC has reported that on April 24 the US alone had over 3,000 COVID-19 deaths. Disturbingly, the actual number of cases and deaths in the US and elsewhere are believed to be even higher because of limited capacity for testing and difficulties in counting the dead.

Nevertheless, just over one week earlier on April 15, people in the US states of Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Michigan defied social distancing recommendations and stay-at-home orders to protest against “infringements on their freedoms”. ABC reported that, “Some carried signs claiming the coronavirus is a hoax, while others held signs with slogans like, ‘All workers are essential’ and ‘Freedom not fear’.” These protesters were not arguing that some people should be sacrificed for the economy; they just do not believe that the risk to health is real or that it is important enough to warrant disrupting economic activity. Such behaviour in the context of available data on COVID-19 death rates in the US and elsewhere validates one of my favourite gems of Biblical wisdom: stultorum infinitus est numerus, (“the number of fools is infinite,” Vulgate, Ecclesiasticus 1:15); however, others apparently agree with them.

Two days later, on April 17, The New York Times summarised Republican sentiment in Congress, “Republicans… are urging an end to the freeze. ’It should have happened yesterday,’ representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, chairman of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, told Politico. Representative Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana acknowledged the chance of “loss of life” from an early end to social distancing but asserted, nonetheless, that it was better than the alternative. “It is policymakers’ decision to put on our big boy and big girl pants and say it is the lesser of these two evils,” he said to a local radio station. Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana was even blunter during an interview on Fox News: “We gotta reopen, and when we do, the coronavirus is going to spread faster, and we got to be ready for it.”

The pandemic is straining the US healthcare system to the extreme

Of course, right-wing Republican lawmakers in the US are not alone in arguing that the economy must be given priority over combatting the coronavirus pandemic. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said, “Life must go on, employments should be kept, people’s income should be preserved, so all Brazilians should go back to normal.” Ignoring evidence from around the world, he mistakenly argues that COVID-19 kills only the elderly and those with underlying conditions, and that if he were infected – aged 65 – he would only feel “a little flu”. He has opposed the social-distancing recommendations of the Brazilian Ministry of Health and on April 16 sacked the minister of health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Officially, Brazil has admitted to only around 3,700 deaths from COVID-19 in a population of over 200 million; however, as noted by Professor Dupeyron at the University of Regina and reported in the National Post, “Brazil likely has twelve times more cases of the new coronavirus than are being officially reported by the government.”  On April 23, The Times in the UK ran an article claiming that people are being buried in mass graves in the Brazilian city of Manaus. This follows earlier reports of mass graves also in Sao Paulo.

Sweden eschewed a comprehensive lockdown that would involve restrictions and fines – with attendant economic impacts – in favour of strong messaging around social distancing. The Swedish head epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, argues, “It is important to have a policy that can be sustained over a longer period, meaning staying home if you are sick, which is our message.” The policy has allowed bars, restaurants and shops to remain open. However, a comparison of COVID-19 cases and deaths with Sweden’s near neighbours Norway (population 5.37 million) and Denmark (population 5.79 million) both of which implemented comprehensive lockdowns reveals a human cost to that decision. Four days ago, Sweden (population 10.2 million) suffered its deadliest day with 185 COVID-19 deaths, nearly as many in a single day as Norway has recorded thus far in total. To date, Sweden has reported more than 2,021 deaths; whereas Norway has had 193 deaths, and Denmark 394 deaths. Reuters noted that Sweden has an export-dependent economy that nevertheless has still been affected negatively by the pandemic. On March 31, Reuters quoted Sweden’s Finance Minister as saying that the nation’s economy is expected to shrink by four per cent this year, “We see growth falling and unemployment rising in a way we have not seen since the financial crisis.” Annika Winsth, chief economist at regional bank Nordea, called Sweden’s decision to remain open “brave.”

In Pakistan, the pressure for relaxation of social distancing has come from religious leaders. On April 22, with the holy month of Ramadan imminent, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl district president, Mufti Kifayatullah, said, “we would never allow this government to keep people away from mosques in such an alarming situation where one should seek Allah’s mercy and forgiveness to come out of this deadly pandemic.”

Let’s be clear, no reasonable person would take issue with the proposition that group worship be allowed and economic activity be done to the maximum extent possible is consistent with minimising pandemic-related illness and deaths. Indeed, in some places, the perilous state of the economy cannot easily accommodate a lockdown at all. For example, on April 17 in Malawi, Africa, an organisation called the Human Rights Defenders Coalition obtained a seven-day court injunction to prevent lockdowns on the grounds that the people of Malawi work hand-to-mouth on a daily basis and that a lockdown would cause tremendous hardship and hunger, even starvation. But recent calls – primarily from the right – to “open the economy” immediately have not been couched with caveats requiring the best possible health outcomes.

A callously sinister although patently dubious argument is that an increased loss of life is just the price that must be paid for keeping the economy strong. On March 23, the US National Economic Council chairman, Larry Kudlow, declared that “we’re gonna have to make some difficult trade-offs.” Vanity Fair interpreted these remarks to mean “we’re going to have to let some people die so the stock market can live.”

In Australia, writing in Quadrant on April 15, Roger Kimball, quoting a former New York Times writer, argued, “right now the best current projection is for 61,000 US deaths. That was the 2017 flu season. Why have we shut the country? I am glad to see that President Trump is at last convening a commission charged with restarting the economy. That should be the signal to retire the task force on the coronavirus and get the country back to work.”

Great for the economy! What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, the COVID-19 death projections cited by Kimball were wildly optimistic – noting more than 52,000 US COVID-19 deaths as of April 25, rising at between 2,000 to 3,000 per day – and made in the context of comprehensive lockdowns across the US. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did indeed conclude that 61,000 people in the US died from influenza in the 2017-18 season, but that was on an estimation that 45 million people were sick with the flu that season. Dr. Norman Swan of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation explains that “COVID-19 has two or three times the transmission rate [compared with the flu]… and the case fatality rate for COVID-19 is around 30 times higher than the flu.” Therefore, if the US did “retire the coronavirus task force and get the country back to work,” there is a high probability that the contagion numbers would equal those of the flu and that more than a million people would die. At present, COVID-19 in the US does not appear to be on that trajectory, but that is because much of the country continues to be in lockdown and enforces social distancing. What happens if these measures are relaxed prematurely or without necessary test-based monitoring, effective contact tracing and outbreak response?

After stock prices crashed at the NYSE, some suggested to trade lives for economic revival

Japan has tried to fight both the virus and keep the economy running at the same time. There have been many critics of Japan’s low level of testing and some suggest that this was done deliberately in early March to present an optimistic picture that might avoid having to postpone the 2020 Olympics. In mid-March, the UK’s Daily Mail observed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remained adamant that Japan “will overcome the spread of the infection and host the Olympics without problem, as planned,” while one Tokyo 2020 executive board member “hastily backtracked and apologised after suggesting a delay.”

On March 24, the Tokyo Olympics were indeed postponed until 2021; however, only one day before that announcement Time magazine reported that “the country was celebrating its annual cherry blossom festival, the time of year when Tokyo residents pack into parks to picnic under the fluttering blooms. The government issued mild warnings and advised people to practice ‘social distancing’ but many parks were nearly as crowded as ever.”

In the face of rising COVID-19 case numbers in Japan, on April 8 a month-long ‘state of emergency’ was finally declared for seven regions, and one week later this was extended to cover the whole nation until May 6. The state of emergency allows regional governments to urge people to stay at home but has no punitive or legal force compelling them to do so. On April 25, the number of cases reported for Japan had risen to an average of around 500 per day over a ten-day period to total almost 13,000 with 345 deaths. On April 16, the BBC reported, “One poll shows 75 per cent of people think the prime minister took too long to declare a state of emergency in Tokyo. After a recent spike in cases in the capital Tokyo, experts warned that the city’s emergency medical facilities could collapse under the pressure.” Reporting from Tokyo indicates that these worst fears have been realised with case numbers and deaths continuing to mount at record levels.

Nevertheless, as Kimball notes, “nobody says that COVID-19 is not real and can’t tax hospitals or kill people” – except perhaps the MAGA-cap-adorned protesters thrusting signs stating that it is a hoax – “especially if they are over 75 or have co-morbidities”. Lieutenant governor Dan Patrick argues “My message: let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.” Charles Mudede of The Stranger in Seattle poignantly reflects “If we have learned anything about the politics of gun control, it is this: the GOP can stomach a whole lot of death.”

Utilitarian logic

When the US National Economic Council chairman Larry Kudlow acknowledged that there would be a need for “trade-offs,” he was talking about the sacrifice of some lives for improvement of the economy. The rationale of this thinking is that on balance the greatest good for the greatest number of people would be achieved by allowing some, mostly seniors, to die. The casual acceptance of this idea was starkly on display with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s egregious observation that restrictions on social contact should not be put in place because “we all have to die someday… “. On March 27, he argued that the economy must remain open saying, “I’m sorry, some people will die. They will die – that’s life.”

This way of thinking reflects certain ideas first articulated by the classical utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes this philosophy: “Utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good… that is, [actions that] bring about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number’.” Bentham’s ideas were shocking to people in the late 18th Century and have been controversial ever since because they suggest that the moral standing of any decision is to be judged only on assessment of its consequences. “It isn’t so much that there is a particular kind of action that is intrinsically wrong; actions that are wrong are wrong simply in virtue of their effects, thus, instrumentally wrong. This cut against the view that there are some actions that by their very nature are just wrong, regardless of their effects… Some may be wrong because they violate liberty, or autonomy. Again, Bentham would view liberty and autonomy as good — but good instrumentally, not intrinsically,” the encyclopedia says.

Mass burying of coronavirus victims without known relatives or dependants at New York’s Hart Island, the “Isle of Death”

Edgar Allen Poe illustrates the utilitarian moral dilemma in his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). In this story, the protagonist and his fellow ship-wreck survivors have been adrift with insufficient food and water for an extended period and matters have become critical. The narrator recounts a disturbing turning point that reveals the dilemma of choosing between a morally repugnant act at the expense of a minority and an important benefit for the majority: “Parker turned suddenly towards me with an expression of countenance which made me shudder… before he opened his lips my heart told me what he would say. He proposed, in a few words, that one of us should die to preserve the existence of the others.” Sadly for the character Richard Parker, he draws the short straw and is promptly killed and eaten by his crew mates.

As an aside, amazingly, in 1884 – 46 years after publication of Edgar Allen Poe’s novel – four hapless surviving crew of the wrecked yacht Mignonette faced the same terrible ordeal in real life as Poe’s fictional characters. They felt themselves confronted with the choice of cannibalism or starvation. In a macabre twist of coincidence, the young crew member they eventually chose to slaughter and eat shared the exact same name as Poe’s sacrificed fictional character, Richard Parker.

It is indeed this very fear of taking human judgement away from decisions on whether acts are inherently vicious or evil that underpins concern over handing aspects of social policy to computer algorithms. With regard to recent calls for premature relaxing of coronavirus social distancing in the name of the economy, perhaps predictably, those most opposed to such consequence-based utilitarian logic are senior citizens over the age of 65 who would be the most likely to be sacrificed for the greater good.

Republican Senator John Kennedy said “When we end the shutdown, the virus is going to spread faster… That’s just a fact. And the American people understand that.” Recent opinion polls show that Kennedy is correct, the American people do understand that, especially older Americans. The approval rating of President Trump has fallen dramatically in recent weeks with seniors over the age of 65 years. On April 11, The Hill reported, “A new CNN poll leaves the Biden campaign salivating. It shows the former vice president leading Trump nationally by 13 points with voters older than 65.”

This trend has seemingly been noticed by Donald Trump who two days ago changed his emphasis in commenting on the plans of governor Brian Kemp to open the Georgia State economy: “It’s just too soon,” Trump said at one of his daily White House news briefings on coronavirus when asked about Kemp’s timetable. “The spas and the beauty parlours and the barber shops… I love them but they can wait a little bit longer, just a little bit, not much, because safety has to predominate.” Trump said that he told Kemp “very simply that I disagree with his decision, but he has to do what he thinks is right.”

So what is the “greater good”?

All of which leaves the casual observer in somewhat of a fog. If appeals to weaken the fight against COVID-19 by prematurely relaxing restrictions on social distancing deliver questionable sustainable economic benefit, and at the same time are harmful to public approval of those making such appeals, what is the greater good that is being pursued at the expense of people’s lives?

Writing in The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie offers an answer to this question. The thrust of his argument is that “Congress has had to contemplate policies that would be criticised as unacceptably radical under any other circumstances. At $2.2 trillion, the initial relief package was a bill that was more than twice the size of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009… including universal basic income for the duration of the crisis, an expansion of the continuation of health care programme that would cover 100 per cent of health care costs for laid-off and furloughed workers and a proposal to cover payrolls for nearly every business in America.” He continues “But this logic – that ordinary people need security in the face of social and economic volatility – is as true in normal times as it is under crisis. If something like a social democratic state is feasible under these conditions, then it is absolutely possible when growth is high and unemployment is low… the ideological danger is that it undermines the ideological project that captured the state with President Ronald Reagan and is on the path to victory under Donald Trump.”

Bouie concludes that “In which case, it makes all the sense in the world for Trump, the Republican Party and the conservative movement to push for the end of the lockdown, public health be damned. After years of single-minded devotion, the conservative movement is achingly close to dismantling the New Deal political order and turning the clock back to when capital could act without limits or restraints.”

In her ground-breaking book, The Shock Doctrine, economist Naomi Klein furnishes examples from around the world, executed over several decades, of how a right-wing, neo-conservative agenda of laissez faire capitalism and small government has been pushed during times of disaster upon societies that would in normal times have resisted such policies. She identifies the economist Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago as the primary architect of this idea, which she argues is “contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum”. In his book, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman writes, “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable”.

Klein argues that “For more than three decades, Friedman and his powerful followers had been perfecting this very strategy: waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the ‘reforms’ permanent”.

Of course, the “existing policies” that Friedman found so odious in the 1960s – when he originally published his doctrine advocating disruptive change during times of crisis – generally entailed a healthy, functioning public sector paid for by society through taxes. However, those “existing policies” no longer exist as they did; the role of the state has been systematically diminished in many countries around the world since then, and especially in the US since the era of Ronald Reagan who was a staunch supporter of Friedman’s ideas. Bouie argues, “But in trying to destroy the administrative state – in trying to make government small enough to “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub” – conservatives left the country vulnerable to a deadly disease that has undermined that project and galvanised its opponents. And all of this is happening as one of the most progressive generations in history begins to take its place in our politics, its views informed by two decades of war and economic crisis.” In other words, paraphrasing Friedman himself, there are new ideas “lying around” and they are progressive rather than neo-conservative.

Essentially, what Bouie is arguing is that progressive forces – perhaps conscious of the irony – now have an opportunity to adopt Friedman’s tactic to roll back decades of reduction in the size, role and effectiveness of the public sector and to re-establish social welfare conditions that benefit the less wealthy. Klein offers multiple examples to show that the laissez-faire capitalist philosophy of the Chicago School of Economics has permeated the political economy of many societies around the world. The current coronavirus pandemic is happening in every country more or less at the same time, and as such in Bouie’s words is creating “a dynamic beyond partisanship that explains why much of the conservative political ecosystem, from politicians and donors to activists and media personalities, has joined the fight to end the lockdown.” Ultimately, we are left to ponder whether people are being asked to die for the economy or for neo-conservative ideology?

Max Herriman is Southeast Asia Business Development Manager at AMOG Consulting Pty Ltd, and Senior Business Strategy Advisor to the international NGO Crops for the Future.

(As an Investvine contributor, Max Herriman’s opinions expressed are his own.)

By Max Herriman A Covid-19 victim is carted away in a funeral car in New York in April On March 24, Dan Patrick, the 69-year-old lieutenant governor of Texas told Tucker Carlson of Fox News, “You know, Tucker, no one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” Patrick continued, “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in… That doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that,” he added. “I just...

By Max Herriman

A Covid-19 victim is carted away in a funeral car in New York in April

On March 24, Dan Patrick, the 69-year-old lieutenant governor of Texas told Tucker Carlson of Fox News, “You know, Tucker, no one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” Patrick continued, “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in… That doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that,” he added. “I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me.”

Patrick and others claim that allowing people to go back to their physical place of work and opening restaurants, bars and retail shops would enable the economy to “return to normal.” However, at the time of Patrick’s interview, the pandemic in the US was still not at its peak anywhere in that country. Those who made this argument around that time and in early April, principally on the right of politics, must have known that relaxing social distancing prematurely and without necessary safeguards such as extensive testing, effective contact tracing and isolation would result in more cases of COVID-19 and more deaths. Potentially, a lot more deaths.

However, if social distancing measures were to be relaxed immediately and the US “opened up”, would people really be likely to dine in restaurants, gather in bars or indulge in retail shopping? Perhaps at first, yes, but as media reports of illness increased and more and more people had first-hand experience of knowing someone who had become seriously ill or died from COVID-19, would people be inclined to stay home and avoid high-risk places? Very probably.

Evidence from Japan shows that the government has been slow to encourage social distancing, did not conduct widespread testing and has not closed workplaces, shops or restaurants. Instead, it opted for a policy of “cluster response.” However, writing in Science magazine, Denis Normile explains that as COVID-19 case numbers in Japan began to skyrocket in mid-April: “Most movie theaters, museums, and department stores have shut their doors. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government reports that morning rush hour ridership on city subway lines last week was down 60% from precrisis levels. Many restaurants and bars have closed or are open for takeout only.”

Even with the economy remaining “open,” on April 20 The Japan Times reported: “Taro Saito, executive research fellow at the NLI Research Institute, said even at more than ¥100 trillion ($1 trillion), the government’s economic support package is insufficient. Saito said it was likely unemployment rate would rise to 3.9 per cent from 2.4 per cent in February, with the fallout from the pandemic not yet factored into the official data. He also estimates the number of unemployed will hit 2.72 million in the fourth quarter, up from 1.56 million at the same time last year.”

Deserted Times Square in New York amid a city-wide lockdown

Therefore, were any economy to be “opened up” prematurely with insufficient safeguards and pandemic numbers increased as a result, unemployment figures would likely still be staggering. This would certainly appear to be so for the US. According to the Pew Research Center citing the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, more than 157 million Americans were in the workforce in 2019 with 71 per cent of non-farm employees working in the services sector, while 16.7 million Americans were employed in leisure and hospitality. A further 12.9 million Americans worked in manufacturing, which would also be affected detrimentally with falling retail sales. In the past month or so, around 26 million Americans have lost their job. These job losses might have been delayed if there was no lockdown but would probably not have been avoided, and the delay would have been at the cost of thousands more dying.

So, one way or the other, the economy was going to take a hit. Why then would politicians, corporate figures and media commentators on the popular right want to send many more citizens to their death for dubious, unsustainable economic benefit? What is going on? Were these entreaties nothing more than short-sighted, ill-considered grasps in panic for a return to normality? Are they just manifest stupidity?

Or is the agenda for premature, ill-prepared opening of the economy more callous and deeply rooted in ideology than mere concern over economic numbers of the day?

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Without doubt, had US states followed the advice of governor Dan Patrick one month ago, there would now be a good many less grandparents out there like him. Patrick argued, “As the president said, the mortality rate is so low. Do we have to shut down the entire country for this? I think we can get back to work.” At the time he spoke, Johns Hopkins University had reported 417,582 confirmed COVID-19 cases globally and 18,612 deaths. On April 25, following weeks of strict social distancing with about one-third of the world population in lockdown, the number of reported cases globally approached 2.8 million and there had been almost 200,000 reported coronavirus deaths, over 52,000 of which were in the US. At one point, the number of deaths in New York alone increased by more than 600 each day, while falling below 500 deaths on April 20 for the first time in over two weeks. The BBC has reported that on April 24 the US alone had over 3,000 COVID-19 deaths. Disturbingly, the actual number of cases and deaths in the US and elsewhere are believed to be even higher because of limited capacity for testing and difficulties in counting the dead.

Nevertheless, just over one week earlier on April 15, people in the US states of Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Michigan defied social distancing recommendations and stay-at-home orders to protest against “infringements on their freedoms”. ABC reported that, “Some carried signs claiming the coronavirus is a hoax, while others held signs with slogans like, ‘All workers are essential’ and ‘Freedom not fear’.” These protesters were not arguing that some people should be sacrificed for the economy; they just do not believe that the risk to health is real or that it is important enough to warrant disrupting economic activity. Such behaviour in the context of available data on COVID-19 death rates in the US and elsewhere validates one of my favourite gems of Biblical wisdom: stultorum infinitus est numerus, (“the number of fools is infinite,” Vulgate, Ecclesiasticus 1:15); however, others apparently agree with them.

Two days later, on April 17, The New York Times summarised Republican sentiment in Congress, “Republicans… are urging an end to the freeze. ’It should have happened yesterday,’ representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, chairman of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, told Politico. Representative Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana acknowledged the chance of “loss of life” from an early end to social distancing but asserted, nonetheless, that it was better than the alternative. “It is policymakers’ decision to put on our big boy and big girl pants and say it is the lesser of these two evils,” he said to a local radio station. Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana was even blunter during an interview on Fox News: “We gotta reopen, and when we do, the coronavirus is going to spread faster, and we got to be ready for it.”

The pandemic is straining the US healthcare system to the extreme

Of course, right-wing Republican lawmakers in the US are not alone in arguing that the economy must be given priority over combatting the coronavirus pandemic. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said, “Life must go on, employments should be kept, people’s income should be preserved, so all Brazilians should go back to normal.” Ignoring evidence from around the world, he mistakenly argues that COVID-19 kills only the elderly and those with underlying conditions, and that if he were infected – aged 65 – he would only feel “a little flu”. He has opposed the social-distancing recommendations of the Brazilian Ministry of Health and on April 16 sacked the minister of health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Officially, Brazil has admitted to only around 3,700 deaths from COVID-19 in a population of over 200 million; however, as noted by Professor Dupeyron at the University of Regina and reported in the National Post, “Brazil likely has twelve times more cases of the new coronavirus than are being officially reported by the government.”  On April 23, The Times in the UK ran an article claiming that people are being buried in mass graves in the Brazilian city of Manaus. This follows earlier reports of mass graves also in Sao Paulo.

Sweden eschewed a comprehensive lockdown that would involve restrictions and fines – with attendant economic impacts – in favour of strong messaging around social distancing. The Swedish head epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, argues, “It is important to have a policy that can be sustained over a longer period, meaning staying home if you are sick, which is our message.” The policy has allowed bars, restaurants and shops to remain open. However, a comparison of COVID-19 cases and deaths with Sweden’s near neighbours Norway (population 5.37 million) and Denmark (population 5.79 million) both of which implemented comprehensive lockdowns reveals a human cost to that decision. Four days ago, Sweden (population 10.2 million) suffered its deadliest day with 185 COVID-19 deaths, nearly as many in a single day as Norway has recorded thus far in total. To date, Sweden has reported more than 2,021 deaths; whereas Norway has had 193 deaths, and Denmark 394 deaths. Reuters noted that Sweden has an export-dependent economy that nevertheless has still been affected negatively by the pandemic. On March 31, Reuters quoted Sweden’s Finance Minister as saying that the nation’s economy is expected to shrink by four per cent this year, “We see growth falling and unemployment rising in a way we have not seen since the financial crisis.” Annika Winsth, chief economist at regional bank Nordea, called Sweden’s decision to remain open “brave.”

In Pakistan, the pressure for relaxation of social distancing has come from religious leaders. On April 22, with the holy month of Ramadan imminent, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl district president, Mufti Kifayatullah, said, “we would never allow this government to keep people away from mosques in such an alarming situation where one should seek Allah’s mercy and forgiveness to come out of this deadly pandemic.”

Let’s be clear, no reasonable person would take issue with the proposition that group worship be allowed and economic activity be done to the maximum extent possible is consistent with minimising pandemic-related illness and deaths. Indeed, in some places, the perilous state of the economy cannot easily accommodate a lockdown at all. For example, on April 17 in Malawi, Africa, an organisation called the Human Rights Defenders Coalition obtained a seven-day court injunction to prevent lockdowns on the grounds that the people of Malawi work hand-to-mouth on a daily basis and that a lockdown would cause tremendous hardship and hunger, even starvation. But recent calls – primarily from the right – to “open the economy” immediately have not been couched with caveats requiring the best possible health outcomes.

A callously sinister although patently dubious argument is that an increased loss of life is just the price that must be paid for keeping the economy strong. On March 23, the US National Economic Council chairman, Larry Kudlow, declared that “we’re gonna have to make some difficult trade-offs.” Vanity Fair interpreted these remarks to mean “we’re going to have to let some people die so the stock market can live.”

In Australia, writing in Quadrant on April 15, Roger Kimball, quoting a former New York Times writer, argued, “right now the best current projection is for 61,000 US deaths. That was the 2017 flu season. Why have we shut the country? I am glad to see that President Trump is at last convening a commission charged with restarting the economy. That should be the signal to retire the task force on the coronavirus and get the country back to work.”

Great for the economy! What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, the COVID-19 death projections cited by Kimball were wildly optimistic – noting more than 52,000 US COVID-19 deaths as of April 25, rising at between 2,000 to 3,000 per day – and made in the context of comprehensive lockdowns across the US. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did indeed conclude that 61,000 people in the US died from influenza in the 2017-18 season, but that was on an estimation that 45 million people were sick with the flu that season. Dr. Norman Swan of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation explains that “COVID-19 has two or three times the transmission rate [compared with the flu]… and the case fatality rate for COVID-19 is around 30 times higher than the flu.” Therefore, if the US did “retire the coronavirus task force and get the country back to work,” there is a high probability that the contagion numbers would equal those of the flu and that more than a million people would die. At present, COVID-19 in the US does not appear to be on that trajectory, but that is because much of the country continues to be in lockdown and enforces social distancing. What happens if these measures are relaxed prematurely or without necessary test-based monitoring, effective contact tracing and outbreak response?

After stock prices crashed at the NYSE, some suggested to trade lives for economic revival

Japan has tried to fight both the virus and keep the economy running at the same time. There have been many critics of Japan’s low level of testing and some suggest that this was done deliberately in early March to present an optimistic picture that might avoid having to postpone the 2020 Olympics. In mid-March, the UK’s Daily Mail observed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remained adamant that Japan “will overcome the spread of the infection and host the Olympics without problem, as planned,” while one Tokyo 2020 executive board member “hastily backtracked and apologised after suggesting a delay.”

On March 24, the Tokyo Olympics were indeed postponed until 2021; however, only one day before that announcement Time magazine reported that “the country was celebrating its annual cherry blossom festival, the time of year when Tokyo residents pack into parks to picnic under the fluttering blooms. The government issued mild warnings and advised people to practice ‘social distancing’ but many parks were nearly as crowded as ever.”

In the face of rising COVID-19 case numbers in Japan, on April 8 a month-long ‘state of emergency’ was finally declared for seven regions, and one week later this was extended to cover the whole nation until May 6. The state of emergency allows regional governments to urge people to stay at home but has no punitive or legal force compelling them to do so. On April 25, the number of cases reported for Japan had risen to an average of around 500 per day over a ten-day period to total almost 13,000 with 345 deaths. On April 16, the BBC reported, “One poll shows 75 per cent of people think the prime minister took too long to declare a state of emergency in Tokyo. After a recent spike in cases in the capital Tokyo, experts warned that the city’s emergency medical facilities could collapse under the pressure.” Reporting from Tokyo indicates that these worst fears have been realised with case numbers and deaths continuing to mount at record levels.

Nevertheless, as Kimball notes, “nobody says that COVID-19 is not real and can’t tax hospitals or kill people” – except perhaps the MAGA-cap-adorned protesters thrusting signs stating that it is a hoax – “especially if they are over 75 or have co-morbidities”. Lieutenant governor Dan Patrick argues “My message: let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.” Charles Mudede of The Stranger in Seattle poignantly reflects “If we have learned anything about the politics of gun control, it is this: the GOP can stomach a whole lot of death.”

Utilitarian logic

When the US National Economic Council chairman Larry Kudlow acknowledged that there would be a need for “trade-offs,” he was talking about the sacrifice of some lives for improvement of the economy. The rationale of this thinking is that on balance the greatest good for the greatest number of people would be achieved by allowing some, mostly seniors, to die. The casual acceptance of this idea was starkly on display with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s egregious observation that restrictions on social contact should not be put in place because “we all have to die someday… “. On March 27, he argued that the economy must remain open saying, “I’m sorry, some people will die. They will die – that’s life.”

This way of thinking reflects certain ideas first articulated by the classical utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes this philosophy: “Utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good… that is, [actions that] bring about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number’.” Bentham’s ideas were shocking to people in the late 18th Century and have been controversial ever since because they suggest that the moral standing of any decision is to be judged only on assessment of its consequences. “It isn’t so much that there is a particular kind of action that is intrinsically wrong; actions that are wrong are wrong simply in virtue of their effects, thus, instrumentally wrong. This cut against the view that there are some actions that by their very nature are just wrong, regardless of their effects… Some may be wrong because they violate liberty, or autonomy. Again, Bentham would view liberty and autonomy as good — but good instrumentally, not intrinsically,” the encyclopedia says.

Mass burying of coronavirus victims without known relatives or dependants at New York’s Hart Island, the “Isle of Death”

Edgar Allen Poe illustrates the utilitarian moral dilemma in his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). In this story, the protagonist and his fellow ship-wreck survivors have been adrift with insufficient food and water for an extended period and matters have become critical. The narrator recounts a disturbing turning point that reveals the dilemma of choosing between a morally repugnant act at the expense of a minority and an important benefit for the majority: “Parker turned suddenly towards me with an expression of countenance which made me shudder… before he opened his lips my heart told me what he would say. He proposed, in a few words, that one of us should die to preserve the existence of the others.” Sadly for the character Richard Parker, he draws the short straw and is promptly killed and eaten by his crew mates.

As an aside, amazingly, in 1884 – 46 years after publication of Edgar Allen Poe’s novel – four hapless surviving crew of the wrecked yacht Mignonette faced the same terrible ordeal in real life as Poe’s fictional characters. They felt themselves confronted with the choice of cannibalism or starvation. In a macabre twist of coincidence, the young crew member they eventually chose to slaughter and eat shared the exact same name as Poe’s sacrificed fictional character, Richard Parker.

It is indeed this very fear of taking human judgement away from decisions on whether acts are inherently vicious or evil that underpins concern over handing aspects of social policy to computer algorithms. With regard to recent calls for premature relaxing of coronavirus social distancing in the name of the economy, perhaps predictably, those most opposed to such consequence-based utilitarian logic are senior citizens over the age of 65 who would be the most likely to be sacrificed for the greater good.

Republican Senator John Kennedy said “When we end the shutdown, the virus is going to spread faster… That’s just a fact. And the American people understand that.” Recent opinion polls show that Kennedy is correct, the American people do understand that, especially older Americans. The approval rating of President Trump has fallen dramatically in recent weeks with seniors over the age of 65 years. On April 11, The Hill reported, “A new CNN poll leaves the Biden campaign salivating. It shows the former vice president leading Trump nationally by 13 points with voters older than 65.”

This trend has seemingly been noticed by Donald Trump who two days ago changed his emphasis in commenting on the plans of governor Brian Kemp to open the Georgia State economy: “It’s just too soon,” Trump said at one of his daily White House news briefings on coronavirus when asked about Kemp’s timetable. “The spas and the beauty parlours and the barber shops… I love them but they can wait a little bit longer, just a little bit, not much, because safety has to predominate.” Trump said that he told Kemp “very simply that I disagree with his decision, but he has to do what he thinks is right.”

So what is the “greater good”?

All of which leaves the casual observer in somewhat of a fog. If appeals to weaken the fight against COVID-19 by prematurely relaxing restrictions on social distancing deliver questionable sustainable economic benefit, and at the same time are harmful to public approval of those making such appeals, what is the greater good that is being pursued at the expense of people’s lives?

Writing in The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie offers an answer to this question. The thrust of his argument is that “Congress has had to contemplate policies that would be criticised as unacceptably radical under any other circumstances. At $2.2 trillion, the initial relief package was a bill that was more than twice the size of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009… including universal basic income for the duration of the crisis, an expansion of the continuation of health care programme that would cover 100 per cent of health care costs for laid-off and furloughed workers and a proposal to cover payrolls for nearly every business in America.” He continues “But this logic – that ordinary people need security in the face of social and economic volatility – is as true in normal times as it is under crisis. If something like a social democratic state is feasible under these conditions, then it is absolutely possible when growth is high and unemployment is low… the ideological danger is that it undermines the ideological project that captured the state with President Ronald Reagan and is on the path to victory under Donald Trump.”

Bouie concludes that “In which case, it makes all the sense in the world for Trump, the Republican Party and the conservative movement to push for the end of the lockdown, public health be damned. After years of single-minded devotion, the conservative movement is achingly close to dismantling the New Deal political order and turning the clock back to when capital could act without limits or restraints.”

In her ground-breaking book, The Shock Doctrine, economist Naomi Klein furnishes examples from around the world, executed over several decades, of how a right-wing, neo-conservative agenda of laissez faire capitalism and small government has been pushed during times of disaster upon societies that would in normal times have resisted such policies. She identifies the economist Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago as the primary architect of this idea, which she argues is “contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum”. In his book, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman writes, “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable”.

Klein argues that “For more than three decades, Friedman and his powerful followers had been perfecting this very strategy: waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the ‘reforms’ permanent”.

Of course, the “existing policies” that Friedman found so odious in the 1960s – when he originally published his doctrine advocating disruptive change during times of crisis – generally entailed a healthy, functioning public sector paid for by society through taxes. However, those “existing policies” no longer exist as they did; the role of the state has been systematically diminished in many countries around the world since then, and especially in the US since the era of Ronald Reagan who was a staunch supporter of Friedman’s ideas. Bouie argues, “But in trying to destroy the administrative state – in trying to make government small enough to “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub” – conservatives left the country vulnerable to a deadly disease that has undermined that project and galvanised its opponents. And all of this is happening as one of the most progressive generations in history begins to take its place in our politics, its views informed by two decades of war and economic crisis.” In other words, paraphrasing Friedman himself, there are new ideas “lying around” and they are progressive rather than neo-conservative.

Essentially, what Bouie is arguing is that progressive forces – perhaps conscious of the irony – now have an opportunity to adopt Friedman’s tactic to roll back decades of reduction in the size, role and effectiveness of the public sector and to re-establish social welfare conditions that benefit the less wealthy. Klein offers multiple examples to show that the laissez-faire capitalist philosophy of the Chicago School of Economics has permeated the political economy of many societies around the world. The current coronavirus pandemic is happening in every country more or less at the same time, and as such in Bouie’s words is creating “a dynamic beyond partisanship that explains why much of the conservative political ecosystem, from politicians and donors to activists and media personalities, has joined the fight to end the lockdown.” Ultimately, we are left to ponder whether people are being asked to die for the economy or for neo-conservative ideology?

Max Herriman is Southeast Asia Business Development Manager at AMOG Consulting Pty Ltd, and Senior Business Strategy Advisor to the international NGO Crops for the Future.

(As an Investvine contributor, Max Herriman’s opinions expressed are his own.)

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