March 27, 2020
At this writing, every governor has issued an emergency declaration in response to the coronavirus and almost all are recommending or requiring that non-essential businesses be temporarily closed. This is, predictably, wrecking havoc on the economy; weekly jobless claims have shot up to a record 3.3 million. For policymakers committed to protecting human life and promoting human flourishing, this raises a dilemma: How do we balance protecting human life (by slowing the spread of the virus) with promoting human flourishing (by avoiding unnecessarily crippling those same people economically)?
The concern for human life is real: The current data suggests that the novel coronavirus is much more contagious than, say, the seasonal flu, which the CDC estimates caused nearly half a million hospitalizations and more than 34,000 deaths in the 2018-2019 flu season. We’ve all seen the government warnings about the coronavirus, that the most at-risk populations include people aged 65 years or older and people with underlying medical conditions.
But the concern about human flourishing is real, too: We are called to work, and we are commanded to provide for our families, to care for the poor, and to contribute financially to the work of the church. Forbidding wide swaths of the workforce from working has spiritual as well as economic implications. Furthermore, the current government-mandated economic shutdown disproportionately impacts the poor, many of whom either work for hourly wages or in the service sector; often, those least able to afford loss of income have born the economic brunt of “shelter in place” policies.
Faced with the threat of a tsunami of sick patients overwhelming our health care system, our initial national response has tended to err on the side of protecting human life. (As a committed pro-life activist and the parent of a young, at-risk child, that makes a lot of sense to me.) But I’ve noticed an emerging debate between people who are beginning to question the wisdom of an ongoing total economic shutdown and those who continue to argue that we must protect human life, almost at any cost. The debate is exceedingly difficult because of the asymmetric nature of the threats: the immediate or near-term loss of life to hundreds of thousands on one side, vs. the medium-term loss of livelihood to potentially tens of millions on the other. Unsurprisingly, the debate seems to be escalating rapidly along partisan and ideological lines, with both sides talking past each other.
What is a pro-life policymaker to make of this?
Yuval Levin (former executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics and special advisor for domestic policy to President George W. Bush) brings a welcome, calm evaluation in The Atlantic of where we are, and suggests a broad direction for next steps (emphasis added):
America has mobilized against the coronavirus in some impressive ways. Although we have faced problems and failures—the botched testing rollout, the immense challenges now confronting the health system—we have also seen an extraordinary transformation of our way of life in short order. People have largely accepted the necessity of social distancing and the burdens of shutting down huge swaths of the economy. We have seen real models of leadership, particularly at the state level. And even members of Congress have been working together and negotiating.
But so far, that mobilization has lacked a strategic framework—a clear medium-term purpose toward which our efforts are aimed and against which they are judged. Policy makers need to think about our response to the virus in terms of two steps: a hard pause, followed by a soft start. The pause is absolutely necessary, but so is the careful and gradual return to normalcy….
It is not yet possible to move from the hard pause we have taken to the soft and gradual resumption of normalcy. But it is essential that such a resumption be the goal of that pause. We all need to do our part to let the health system make it through the hardest, most intense period of critical cases. But the aim of public policy should be to have this period last weeks, not months; to let people keep their place while we go through it; and to enable a gradual, soft, uneasy return to work, school, commerce, and culture.
Some of what policy makers have already done has helped advance this cause, and some of it has been confused about its purpose. A clearer, well-articulated strategic framework for policy could help decision makers tell the difference, assess their options, make hard choices, and lead the way.
The whole piece is to be commended.