I recently chose the necessary evil of reactivating my Facebook account and unlike my Instagram account that’s mostly focused on food, Facebook seems to be the same cesspool of armchair economists, would-be epidemiologists, and rabid meme-sharers that I left it at. Leaving the fact that my Facebook network needs just as bad a trim as my hair aside, a sizable number of posts I see are about whether communities should reopen or not and if the former, how quickly and fully.
The slogans create a sense that there are only two sides to the argument: “Flatten the Curve” and “Stay at Home, Save Lives” on one, “The Cure is Worse than the Disease” and “Liberate [insert region here]” on the other. Of course there are a multitude of variations in between depending on how conservative a reopening can be, how robust a bailout package under continued lockdown should be, and a whole host of other factors. I am no expert in any field that would allow me to opine on any of these levers, so I will refrain from doing so. Instead, I will simply point out the complex value judgements people make when they place their stake in the ground.
For someone living far from a virus hotspot who’s entire livelihood was erased overnight due to a breakdown in the supply chain, a lockdown order preventing them from finding other work can seem like salt thrown into a wound. Said person may stand alongside someone who is relatively young, has a comprehensive medical insurance plan, and whose ability to remotely (be it their apartment or vacation home) makes them see the threat of a virus as a mere nuisance to their more important social standing. Two people, very different values. It’s far too easy to dismiss the side you don’t agree with as brainwashed sheeple but the real work is determining the values they imply when they profess their support for one approach or another.
To a healthcare worker who’s seen the horrors of death up close, a reopening based on “acceptable losses” of hundreds of lives seems inhumane even if the death rate has been dropping; every life is precious. To an industry leader who’s had to lay off hundreds of employees and who can’t bear to think of the people who won’t have jobs to return to, losing a few to save the many seems reasonable; the cure is worse than the disease. Of course people’s values don’t always skew so altruistic. When Karen, your typical entitled, middle-aged, white woman calls for a reopening, it’s unlikely she’s saying so in defense of something as high-minded as “The Economy”. She could be instead implying that the value of an overdue nail salon appointment is worth risking her life (since her insurance covers treatments and her job as a mommy influencer lets her work from home) and the lives of others (whose lack of a privileged position she cares nothing for).
My father has also, at some point, supported a reopening in the name of “The Economy”. And while my proximity to the disease here in NYC makes me read his arguments with disgusted incredulity, they make far more sense when I remember that this is coming from the man who shrugs at the idea of death since “we’re all dying anyway”. His arguments seem more reasonable when I stop to realize that this is a man who grew up dirt poor and for whom the precariousness of life has been a far greater certainty than financial stability.
But Karen and my father shouldn’t be let off the hook just because their points make a little more sense. It just means that instead of making a whole show about abstract ideals like “The Economy” and “Liberty”, call it like it is: we value a certain type of life more than another, even if it inevitably comes at others’ expense. And me? Someone who’s blessed with the ability to work from home and with a sizable savings pot but has friends who go into the frontlines everyday and return with gut-wrenching horror stories? I’m staying home. I’d hazard to say that I at least am clear why.