Life vs. quality of life and other considerations

Like everybody else I know I have for several days been doing what we’ve been told to do : social distancing, washing our hands, doing our bit to “flatten the curve,” as we’ve learned to think of it. Every surface you come in contact with (of which it turns out the world has a lot) is suspect. Every fellow human coming at you along the sidewalk is a potential death threat.

This shutting down os the world as we know it is unprecedented in my long life. Meanwhile there is the frustrating attempt to construct from nonstop news stories and opinion pieces an understanding of our situation: how bad is it? How bad is it really? How bad is it going to get? Is the proper analogy with the 1918 or the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009?

A fundamental issue here has to do with the value of life and its relationship to risk.

Life is precious, we say. Every life is priceless. In theory. And yet when it comes to the 40,000 lives lost every year in traffic accidents, we don’t for a moment consider doing what would clearly bring those numbers way down:lowering the speed limit to 25 everywhere and limiting driving to essential trips. It seems that the value of life is in competition at times with the quality of life. (We want to go fast and feel free to go anywhere.)

How can we not save every life threatened by this virus if possible and not count the cost? And yet don’t we have to count the cost?

And in fact we are counting it: “This is how the coronavirus will destroy the economy” (NewYork Times, March 7.)

The fallout from the outbreak has plunged the country into a grim and uncertain reality…with millions of Americans facing the prospect of no work and wondering how they will pay the bills.” (New York Times,March 19) The grim reality cited is not the death toll but the measures to reduce the toll.

The fiercest debate centered [this past week] around two key notions. One was how to react in the strongest way possible. The other was whether reacting in the strongest way possible was actually most of the problem.” (AP, March 22).

Some Ask a Taboo Question: Is America Overreacting to Coronavirus?” (NYT, March 18) about those urging a more balanced weighing of harm vs. benefits of social-distancing.

What if one cost of saving lives from the virus is that if it’s necessary months into the future social distancing will prevent or affect voting in November, as conjectured by an election official (Cape Cod Times, March 22)?

We know the severe measures being taken are taking a terrific toll. Life not being a controlled experiment, we will never know whether or to what extent they were necessary.

It was reported several days ago that China had its first day with no new cases and “only” 3245 deaths to that point. The virus could come back in a second season (like the flu), but that figure is about 3% of the deaths of an average flu season in China (extrapolating from U.S. Figures). The same may be true for democracies such as South Korea.

But at this writing we are taking no comfort from that. Our curve is on the way up, with no end in sight, not even the beginning of the end. It could be weeks, months, maybe years. (If some believable authority has a glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel, it would be good for morale to let us know.)

Despite China’s totals and the current low US numbers, a fraction of the usual flu season numbers, we keep hearing shockingly high possibilities: 200,000 deaths as a best case scenario, worst case of 2.4 million.

So we do what we are told, welcome ever more severe measures to shut down economic, social and civic life, and are now apparently into “quarantine shaming” of those less scrupulous.

Will this unprecedented national effort at anti-virus cooperation incline us to apply some of this newfound seriousness to flattening the curve of that other ongoing disaster, climate change?


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