Ever since March of 2020, when many states in the U.S. went into lockdown, places like New York and California have consistently had some of the strongest restrictions on what people are allowed to do: mask mandates, stay at home orders, outdoor dining requirements, and, recently in New York City, requirements that certain businesses verify the vaccination status of customers. Such restrictions come out of a motivation, to save “just one life,” according to former NY Governor Andrew Cuomo. It is that same kind of motivation that made New Zealand go into lockdown over just one COVID case.
One might be inclined to say that putting a price on the value of human life is impossible, so the government must do whatever it takes to prevent human life from being taken. But this begs the question, why are such drastic actions being taken for events such as COVID and not other life-threatening situations?
Covid-19 is not the only thing that has ever taken human lives. Over 32,000 people in the U.S. die every year in motor vehicle crashes, with many more getting seriously injured. Why not pass comprehensive legislation to tackle this epidemic? Sure, we have driving license requirements, vehicle safety standards, speed limits, and much more, but clearly, this isn’t enough. If we truly cared about saving even one human life, let alone tens of thousands each year, wouldn’t we put in place a blanket ban on all motor vehicles?
Or what about drugs, like alcohol, cigarettes, and the like? Despite many known detriments to the human body, those are still legal and widely used.
Or what about something that is seemingly not very dangerous, but that still claims many lives – bathtubs? Someone drowns in a bathtub nearly every day in the U.S. Greedy bathtub manufacturers clearly care more about making money by selling a means to wash oneself than they do about saving human life.
Obviously, the bathtub analogy is silly, but the point still stands. Why has it become acceptable to take any means necessary to save even one life when it comes to COVID but not for anything else? Maybe part of the reason behind the strong reaction is because it is an infectious disease and so involves other people not being responsible for preventing spread. However, this isn’t the first widespread infectious disease that has infected the U.S. and world population. As of writing this, September 3, there have been about 39 million cases of COVID in the U.S., and 644,000 deaths. During the 2019-2020 flu season alone, 38 million people got sick with the flu, with 22,000 deaths according to the CDC.
This is nowhere near the level of damage as COVID, but if human life is invaluable, shouldn’t we then make it a priority to go into lockdown every flu season to save as many of those 22,000 people as possible? Or do we simply draw a line on how many deaths we will tolerate before enacting extensive lockdowns? It seems to a certain extent that the nature of the reaction to COVID is a response to its novelty and people will eventually become desensitized to the deaths or simply accept them as part of the natural order. The Flu has been around for so long that nobody particularly thinks of it as a threat anymore despite the thousands of deaths a year in the U.S.
While many have pushed for extensive government action, life is not so simple that you can simply enact laws to make sure that no human life will ever be lost. Going back to the matter of alcohol, it would seem that simply prohibiting the sale and consumption of it would save lives. But as we know from history, that is not what happens. During prohibition, the black-market sale of alcohol cropped up, the mafia was created, and (ultimately) people continued to consume under secretive settings.
In a COVID age, shutting down businesses and forcing people to stay home to minimize interaction prevents the spread of the disease, and thus reduces deaths from COVID. But what about those people who have lost their businesses, lost their savings, had their mental health destroyed, and ultimately committed suicide? Do we just ignore them, because there is an overall net positive in terms of total lives saved by doing this?
Also, people talk a lot about protecting life with all these measures, but what about quality of life? For example, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the reopening of schools, particularly elementary and middle schools. Throughout the last 18 months of COVID, according to the CDC, 400 children in the U.S. under the age of 17 have died from COVID, out of a total child population of 74 million, or just 0.00054 percent of children. While this is nonetheless tragic for those families, should the government really be taking the decision of putting kids back in school out of parents’ hands?
Especially given that the quality of education has gone down throughout remote learning. Take the Texas education system for instance, which reported a 32 percent drop in the number of students who met STAAR math standards. Going back to that same set of CDC statistics, given 54,000 deaths from non-COVID causes and more deaths from Pneumonia than from COVID, is the answer then to confine children in their homes? Is it worth ruining a child’s social development, education, and overall maturation for the sake of keeping them safe from the dangers of the outside world?
What we seem to have forgotten in the last year and a half is that enacting legislation to protect life requires a cost-benefit analysis of the situation. Cars result in many deaths per year, but as a result of the convenience they offer, the economic benefits of faster travel, and the personal gratification many get out of having their own car, we accept their continued existence in society. To many, the pleasant feelings they experience under the influence of drugs will push them to use or abuse those substances, while to others, the risks are too great to consider doing such a thing. People know that they could die in a bathtub by slipping and falling or drowning, but they would rather cleanse their bodies of sweat, oil, and dirt and risk that faintest chance.
While it may seem heartless to allow things to take human lives, we ultimately consider them matters of personal responsibility and choice. People know the risks of what they are doing and they accept the consequences.
Now, all of this is not to say that we should just go around coughing in other people’s faces or not quarantining if we have COVID just because we have personal freedoms. But we must recognize that there are often undesirable side effects when trying to tackle only one dimension of a problem. With COVID, many have chosen to swat concerns aside and push for any means necessary to combat it, an attitude that really does not exist for the vast majority of issues.
Ultimately, it’s important to recognize the great double standard that is the response to Covid-19. The way to address such an issue is by doing what has always been done, a combination of personal responsibility and government policy. Give people the ability to decide what they value more and the freedom to make choices in pursuit of that. People are still able to wear masks and socially distance themselves even if there is no government mandate on it. Government policy, meanwhile, should not be dictated by trying to save “just one life”, but by rigorous cost-benefit analysis. The costs of lockdowns on the economy and mental health should be weighed against the benefits as governments respond to the Greek alphabet of COVID variants in the future.
Categories: Domestic Affairs