The coronavirus pandemic is a nightmare, and the worst is still to come. It is also a moment of clarity about our world. In recent days, President Donald Trump and his allies began laying the groundwork to abandon public health measures to slow the virus’s spread. They have concluded that the loss of human life is acceptable and the decline in corporate earnings is not. “The whole concept of death is terrible,” Trump told reporters on Monday when discussing mortality rates. “But there’s a tremendous difference between 1 percent and 4 or 5 percent.”
Some welcomed the prospect of sacrificing lives, even their own, for the economy’s sake. One of them was Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas and a 69-year-old grandfather. “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?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” he said in a Fox News interview on Monday night. “And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that.”
If Patrick wants to sign an advance medical directive to turn down a ventilator if he gets Covid-19, that’s his decision. But his policy stance risks killing countless people who did not choose to die a horrible, lonely death. Public health experts have repeatedly warned that the virus could overwhelm hospitals, exhaust medical resources and personnel, and cause hundreds of thousands of otherwise preventable deaths in the United States alone. This is not a hypothetical scenario: Look no further than Italy, where hundreds of people die each day in a modern health care system stretched beyond the breaking point. New York may be days away from a similar crisis.
Condemning scores of American elders to a painful death should be unthinkable for any reason. (It’s also worth noting that while the virus disproportionately kills older patients, it does not spare younger ones.) Trumpworld’s desire to sacrifice them for the economy’s sake, however, is particularly macabre. It’s also built on a false understanding of how this country operates. “The economy,” as a concept, is not measured in corporate earnings or stock indices. It very specifically refers to people—people who will suffer and die if Trump’s nihilistic vision of crisis management prevails.
Consider Boeing and the major airlines. With international travel bans in place and most Americans voluntarily avoiding domestic travel, the industry is in direr straits than even after the September 11 attacks. In a Fox News town hall on Tuesday, Trump promised that the airplane manufacturer would survive. “We’re not letting Boeing go out of business,” he said. “You have to help them temporarily. It’s not going to be a long time, temporarily.” He expressed openness to letting the federal government own stock in the company in exchange for relief, which Boeing’s CEO later rejected outright.
The economy is far more than just Boeing’s balance sheets, though. The real economy—the one that most Americans live in—is people. It’s the Seattle engineers who build their airplanes, the pilots and flight attendants who operate them, and the commercial travelers who buy tickets to get somewhere with them. If public health measures are eased prematurely, those workers might be forced to return to their jobs so their labor can be turned into higher corporate earnings. They might even patronize small businesses and restaurants more frequently. But they will also risk infection, hospitalization, and worse along the way. So too will everyone with whom they come in contact.
The good news is that Trump’s power is somewhat limited. He doesn’t have the power to overturn shelter-in-place orders issued by governors or mayors. In the weeks ahead, perhaps an originalist legal scholar or two will divine the framers’ will to argue that such measures are unconstitutional, and perhaps Trump will direct the Justice Department to challenge them in federal court. Until then, he can only urge working Americans to risk their lives so that the second-quarter decline in gross domestic product will stay in the high single digits.
The problem is that many of these workers are actually suffering as American commerce grinds to a halt. Restaurants, bars, and hotels across the country are also shedding hundreds of thousands of employees, and other economic sectors may soon follow. Accordingly, Trump and his allies have argued that the country must choose between “flattening the curve” and sending millions of Americans into financial ruin. “If given the choice between dying and plunging the country I love into a Great Depression, I’d happily die,” The Federalist’s Jesse Kelly wrote on Twitter on Monday.
Set aside for the moment that, statistically speaking, people like Kelly are calling for others to die and not themselves. Set aside the moral bankruptcy of American conservatives who have spent decades lecturing the country about abortion rights, stem-cell research, and right-to-die laws, only to demand our elders be sacrificed for a few points on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. What’s truly galling about their ghoulish actuarial calculus is that it’s a totally false choice between the “cure” of a partial economic shutdown and the “disease” of a dangerous pandemic.
Other countries—wealthy countries, developed countries, stable countries, democratic countries—have also used shutdowns to contain the virus’s spread. At the same time, they adopted a raft of measures to insulate their people from as much hardship as possible. To prevent mass layoffs, for example, Denmark and the Netherlands are paying companies between 75 percent and 90 percent of their workers’ wages for the duration of their respective shutdowns. Even Britain’s Conservative-led government, which pledged last week to cover 80 percent of wages for at least the next three months, has become an employer of last resort.
“We are starting a great national effort to protect jobs,” Rishi Sunak, the U.K.’s chancellor of the exchequer, said when making the announcement. “We want to look back on this time and remember how in the face of a generation-defining moment we undertook a collective national effort and we stood together. It’s on all of us.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government had come under withering criticism for its initial herd-immunity strategy, which it abandoned last week after researchers warned it would lead to a catastrophic death toll.
That thinking is now playing out in reverse on the American right. Trump and many of his right-wing allies know that it’s within the federal government’s power to mitigate most of the damage that the shutdowns will inflict. But they can’t embrace the measures necessary to alleviate that suffering without admitting that a better world is possible, that many of the day-to-day hardships that working Americans struggle to overcome can be swept away in a matter of weeks, and that the extreme concentration of wealth and corporate power is an obstacle to these efforts. And so they have chosen a darker path.