As a society, we fear three things: uncertainty, a lack of control, and that which represents both — death.
The coronavirus pandemic has made plain this fear. COVID-19 is a novel disease. We do not have the means to prevent it, we lack the resources to treat it, and we even struggle to identify it. So we have made the collective decision to stay home, flatten the curve, and reduce the spread of the virus as much as possible until we can understand, control, and ultimately defeat the coronavirus.
The goal is to save lives, specifically those of the elderly and high-risk. But at what cost? Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who will be 70 years old next week, argued the long-term consequences of this temporary shutdown would hurt more than help. It’s time to reopen the country, he told Fox News — come what may.
“Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves,” Patrick said. “But don’t sacrifice the country.”
Patrick’s fear is that the temporary, extreme measures our state and local governments have taken (shelter-in-place orders, business closures, and the suspension of group gatherings) could permanently upend the American way of life.
“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 America loves for its children and grandchildren?' And if that is the exchange, I'm all in,” he explained.
Patrick isn’t alone. In an essay for First Things, the publication’s editor, R.R. Reno, lambasted the “disastrous sentimentalism” driving our response to the coronavirus pandemic. There are “many things more precious than life,” Reno said. “What about justice, beauty, and honor?”
Reno believes we have sacrificed family, religion, and community to the “false god of saving lives.” Patrick is more concerned about economic and political stability, but he, too, believes our preventative efforts are futile. Death is inevitable. There are many things more precious than life.
Reno is right that fear of death should not control our actions, and eventually, we must “get back to work,” as Patrick has argued. But our government's desire to save as many lives as possible right now is not pointless or “demonic,” to quote Reno. Such a suggestion is not just false; it’s dangerous. False, because our containment strategy serves a specific, long-term purpose. And dangerous, because it suggests that life is only as valuable as the things we give it up for.
The reason we must shut down businesses, schools, and churches right now is to prevent crucial industries from collapsing entirely, which is what’s happening in Italy, France, and New Zealand. A return to life as usual simply is not an option when normalcy means overrun hospitals, overworked doctors, and an out-of-control sickness that disproportionately kills our elders.
Furthermore, the idea that we are giving up too much by collectively shielding the high-risk citizens is, quite frankly, frightening. There’s a utilitarian side to Reno’s so-be-it argument, in which he claims triage would have been better than a mass shutdown. Normalcy would have cost more lives to be sure. But at least the survivors would have been able to worship, attend concerts, plan family reunions, and most importantly, hold that friendly dinner party Reno regrettably missed.
There is a reason conservatives have fought against assisted suicide, abortion, and tyrannical laws that would force families to take their loved ones off of life support after a certain period of time: because life is sacred, and it cannot and should not be assigned a value. By prioritizing things like the economy and even community, Reno and Patrick would have us do just that.
And what would it say about us as a society were we to sacrifice our most vulnerable when it is within our power to save them? There is no amount of justice, beauty, or courage that would restore the lost honor of a nation that gave up its weak for the sake of its strong.
Perhaps our response to the coronavirus is rooted in a fear of death, as Reno argued. I have no trouble admitting I fear what might happen if my grandparents contracted the virus, and I know I’m not alone. But our response is about more than just staving off death. It is also about preserving a life worth living — a life in which our grandparents are healthy and our children immune to this novel disease; a life in which the blessings we gave up temporarily (church, education, and community, prosperity, and so on) are even more valuable upon return.
There’s an exchange in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that comes to mind:
‘Love life more than the meaning of it?' asked Ivan.
‘Certainly, love it, regardless of logic as you say,' returned Alyosha, ‘because it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it.'
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