A Non-conversation about the COVID-19 Virus

In today’s New York Times (March 26), Nicholas Kristof and Russell Moore had a non-conversation about the COVID-19 virus.  

moore 2Kristof, with co-author Stuart Thompson and with the help of some statistical model builders, published an interactive graph on the spread of the virus.  It shows the effect of different lengths of “intervention.” [1]  It is the kind of information we need to decide what “we”—crucial term—should do in the present crisis.

Russell Moore wrote that we should not sacrifice anyone.  Dr. Moore does not want to talk public policy.  It looks from a suitable distance that Moore and Kristof are talking about the same thing, but I don’t think they are.  Let’s look at why not by allowing each to critique the other.

Kristof says that setting the level of intervention at X will cost Y million lives.  If the intervention lasts until Easter (17 days from now) the model forecasts 30 million infected, 10 million hospitalized, and 1 million dead. If we continue the intervention for 40 days—I picked that number because I thought Dr. Moore would enjoy it—we would have 8 million infected (instead of 30) 1 million hospitalized (instead of 10 million), and maybe 100,000 dead (instead of 1 million). [2]

That is what good public policy work should tell us.  What is the difference in lives lostmoore 1 between X and X+1?  Policy cannot be made on any other basis.  It treats every member of the population equally; everyone is a check mark.  In approaching it this way, we have, according the Moore, “lost our humanity.”

Dr. Moore says that every life is sacred because we are made in the image of God.  For reasons he does not specify, the most vulnerable are the most valuable.  If Moore were to organize a chart like Kristof’s, to which he is ethically opposed, he would organize it by social class, giving priority to those who are most likely to die from the disease and sacrificing those least likely to die.

Moore has good theological grounds for his ethical urgings, but they don’t help anyone who must make the kinds of decisions he is talking about.  He argues, for instance, that we should not “pass by on the other side of the road.”  The phrasing comes from the story of the Good Samaritan, but in public policy there is no “other side” of the road.  Public policy is responsible to consider both sides of the road and there is nowhere for people like Moore to hide.

OK, those are the two critiques.  Now let’s look at the reality.  Every additional day of “intervention” will come at great cost in human values and in human lives.  It is nonsense to say that protecting the economy is a different thing from protecting human lives unless you have some particular human lives and some particular measure of economic health in mind.  As I see it, Moore does have particular ones in mind and Kristof does not.

An older version of this dilemma is setting speed limits.  If every five mile per hour reduction saves X lives, how can you argue against reducing the limit.  Is “getting there faster” really worth the cost of the human lives that will be lost?  Well…yes.  There is a point at which, given the speed capabilities of cars both ancient and modern, you must simply balance the need for speed against the loss of life.  I know that sounds heartless, but imagine 15 mile and hour speed limits.  Dr. Moore argues against balance.

Would it help us at all to consider where we get a word like “vulnerable”?  English gets the word from the Latin vulnus, “wound.”  We distance ourselves from the realities of our society by using a word like “vulnerable,” which means “able to be wounded,” or perhaps, “more likely than some others to be wounded.”  Perhaps it would help us to use “wounded” of the people most likely to die from this virus, rather than “able to be wounded.”

Those who are already wounded are most likely to die from an epidemic.  If we are aggressive in our social policy, we will save many lives, but those who are already wounded will still die disproportionately.  If we are casual in our social policy, as President Trump is proposing, the wounded will still die disproportionately, but many more of them will die.

In other words, Dr. Moore’s advice does not help.  I think it would do less damage in a sermon.  I really wish the New York Times had not published it.  It offers only moral condemnation on the people who have the hard job of allocating lifesaving equipment here but not there, and continuing the intervention from X to X +1.  

[1]  Business closures and social distancing

[2]  Rough estimates based on reading a small interactive chart.  The numbers are proportionately correct.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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