A complex and heated debate is raging across the land. Do we keep the economy shut down in the interest of saving as many lives as possible, at the same time risking the collapse of our nation’s economy with all the physical and emotional devastation that such an economic earthquake would bring with it? Or, do we open up our economy sooner rather than later in order to rescue our economic well-being while taking every precaution possible to protect the most vulnerable among us?
This choice has been presented too often by the secular media as a stark, binary choice — lives vs. jobs. Would that it were that simple a decision. In reality, it is a far more complex moral and ethical dilemma that involves severely damaging consequences whichever choice one makes.
The government mandated nation-wide shutdown of the economy was implemented in order to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus’s progress so as not to overwhelm our hospitals with a tsunami of potentially critically ill, contagious patients all at once. The shutdown was largely successful in achieving that goal, although New York City’s hospitals came perilously close to collapsing under the sudden onslaught of coronavirus patients they had to withstand.
Thankfully, the coronavirus, while wildly contagious, is not nearly as lethal as we first feared it might be. And, even though we want to do everything feasible to save as many lives as possible, we need to proceed forward with public policy decisions that seek to mitigate as much human suffering as possible. Therein lies the essential, excruciating moral dilemma.
As the economic shutdown has been extended by various states and local authorities, it has generated grievously painful unemployment numbers. As of May 14, 36.6 million Americans are now unemployed. The Washington Post has reported that 100,000 American businesses are now out of business — bankrupt through no fault of their own, but because the government mandated that they shutter their doors. And perhaps most gut-wrenching of all, it is now reported that 40% of the people in this country who make less than $40,000 a year have now lost their jobs. That means that Americans who have the least economic reserves and are the most vulnerable economically are suffering disproportionately in the greatest unemployment crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Food banks across the nation are already struggling to meet the demands of families that no longer have food security sufficient to feed their families.
What we are witnessing in America is a vast human tragedy. We are talking about fellow Americans who have lost the savings of a lifetime in the bankruptcy of a small business, or the loss of their home by foreclosure after paying their mortgage payments for 10, 15, or 20 or more years.
Federal research reveals that in the last serious economic downturn in 2008, which is a minor ripple compared to these numbers, for every one point the unemployment rate went up, the suicide rate went up by 1%. If that research holds true, then tens of thousands of Americans will commit suicide in the coming months, in hopelessness and despair after losing their jobs, and in many cases, everything they owned. And they will have experienced this economic devastation not through bad business decisions, or flagrant or profligate spending, but simply because their “government of the people, by the people, for the people” shut down the economy.
Additionally, government research shows that the last government downturn generated a significant increase in drug abuse and addiction.
The cruel reality is that what we are facing in America is not a choice between saving lives vs. restarting the economy, but how many lives will be ruined or lost by rampant economic dislocation vs. people who will get sick and some will die from the Coronavirus. To present the dilemma as anything simpler than that is simply disingenuous.
So what do we do? It seems to me, in seeking to balance these compelling realities, the most morally prudent course of action is to make every effort to get our economy up and running at full speed as rapidly as possible, while at the same time taking extreme precautions to protect the most vulnerable among us. Those individuals in assisted living facilities, the elderly in general, and those living with life compromising conditions such as COPD, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, suppressed immune systems, etc. In other words, take the precautions we need to take to protect the most vulnerable and let everyone else get back to work while they can still do so.
In addition, we need to understand that America is a very diverse place, and our Coronavirus pandemic experience has illustrated this vividly. Approximately 43% of all Coronavirus deaths in the U.S. have occurred in just three states — New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, which together comprise approximately 11% of the U.S. population. On the other hand, the residents of California, Texas, and Florida, the three most populous states, while totaling 27% of the U.S. population, account for only 7% of the nation’s coronavirus deaths.
If there were ever a stark illustration of why one size does not fit all, this is it. Seldom has there been a stronger case to be made for American federalism than the states’ differing Coronavirus pandemic experience. The federal government should be allowing the various states, while being always mindful to protect the rights acknowledged and protected by the Constitution, to make whatever accommodations and arrangements they feel will best protect their citizens from serious illness as well as from economic devastation. In other words, what works and is appropriate for Texas and Florida may be very different from what is most prudent in New York or New Jersey. Let’s give the elected representatives of the various states the freedom to adapt to the current reality in their states and to do which is best for the citizens of their states.
Dr. Richard Land is president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is part of an advisory group for President Donald Trump