A Covid False Dichotomy

I wrote this on Facebook on May 17th, but it’s still mostly relevant six weeks later.



I’m more interested in suggesting how we think about this pandemic than what we should think. I see a lot of people sharing what we should think. Here’s how I think about it.

1.) Our goal should be to minimize death and suffering. So if we can agree on that premise, then we’re good to go on; otherwise, we need to get clarity here.

2.) If we’re good with the idea of minimizing death and suffering, we need to weigh the death and suffering of the virus itself against the death and suffering that results from lockdown measures.

3.) We have more options than complete anarchy versus lockdown enforced through martial law. However, our options change depending on the scenario we find ourselves in.

Is it possible to contain and eliminate the virus like the world did with SARS? Probably not. Is it possible to maintain the rate of infection to a low-enough level that we do not overburden our healthcare infrastructure. Probably so. Will we have a vaccine within a year? No. Will we have a vaccine soon enough that we can afford to pay people to stay home in the meantime? Highly doubtful. Is it worth extending the lockdown to give us time to ramp up testing and contact tracing? It might be if Americans would cooperate with contact-tracing.

So here’s where Trump and his progeny have been less than useless. The timelines of their confident predictions do not match up rationally with the policy they advocate. If we’re going to end this with a vaccine within the year, as Trump has suggested, or if this is going to go away after November 3, as Eric has suggested, then the most rational way to minimize death, suffering, _and_ economic impact is by paying a livable wage to everyone deemed a nonessential worker so that they can stay home, while we organize lockdown at the national level. Our national infrastructure includes the brain trust and carefully built machinery of small business. If we can support it but we don’t, the longterm economic cost will be unnecessarily high.

The federal government could _try_ to save lives by putting all nonessential workers on paid furlough until the end of the year and then see where we’re at. but it probably won’t, because it seems few people believe the expenditure will ultimately save lives or reduce suffering.

So what do we do? We act rationally within the uncertainty boundaries of our data and our reading of the political landscape. Of course, doing that requires strong, decisive leadership.

Can a rational person defend Trump? No. It’s clear that his ad hoc approach to this virus, consistent with a mindset of pathological self-interest, has been counterproductive. I’m not mentioning this primarily to campaign against Trump but as a point of basic reasoning: appealing to tribal divisions in order to make space for plausible deniability can only maximize the death and suffering: it ensures that the most counterproductive instincts of both left and right will hold sway. On the right, basic signs of social responsibility and science-based concern are rendered liberal call signs; the same for the left in regard to the right with any sane, context-based loosening of lockdown restrictions. Individual governors cannot set policy for half the country, so we normalize only the grossest, most prejudiced reactions.

So, again, what do we do? Individually, we can reject taking one side or the other of a false dichotomy. We can share ideas outside this narrative. Should the government force meatpackers back to work by denying them unemployment? On the one hand, we’ve got people being effectively conscripted into a dangerous fight. On the other, think of all that wasted meat!

Or come up with another hand. Why can’t we allow people in covid-compromised facilities to be treated as laid off, where they’ll still be obliged to seek employment elsewhere to receive benefits? Why can’t we have government-subsidized hazard pay to entice people to work the jobs deemed essential, at least until plant safety measures have proven effective over a reasonable period of time? Why do we go along with a simplistic freedom narrative that runs counter to the very idea of promoting individual choice in a free market?

Our void of national leadership will no doubt be filled with mandates imposed by the virus itself. Protect the people around you however you deem best, according to reason rather than partisanship. And if you think I’m being a hypocrite in regard to Trump, I get it, but I’m actually not attacking his behavior out of political allegiance or animus. If you can offer a simpler explanation, I’m open to it.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of ElectricStory.com.
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