Calculating incalculable losses
What’s wrong with this picture? Aside from a numbered loss being labeled “incalculable.”
As simply a commentary on the personal toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on many, this front page of the New York Times from a few days ago is unobjectionable. But in calling the number of deaths “incalculable” and imploring the reader to think of the individuals who succumbed to the disease as “us,” it seems to me it improperly frames the loss as a tragedy more devastating and personal than the hundreds of thousands of other deaths which occur each year, in order to advance a specific goal.
I suspect though I cannot show that it was the editors’ intent with this unusual display to increase support for a continued lockdown. By flooding their front page with tidbits of personal information on hundreds of those who are counted as COVID-19 deaths, they hope to make us feel more familiar with and responsible for each other. And thereby more willing to sacrifice our lifestyles and livelihoods.
So I have a few thoughts on that.
Are these other deaths thereby calculable?
Over ten times as many people die each year of heart disease and cancer than the “incalculable” coronavirus stats. Why doesn’t the NY Times give us front page obituary snippets for all of them? Or 1% of them? Perhaps you’ll say it’s because this pandemic is unusual and the deaths are preventable if we all stay quarantined.
But if it’s about doing our part to save lives, and “no one is expendable,” why are we not banning tobacco products and fatty foods? Many deaths from heart disease and cancer would be prevented if we did. If the New York Times got in our face with personal bios of all the men and women who died because they consumed too many burgers and donuts or smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, would that make us willing to support a wholesale ban on all those unhealthy consumables?
Someone may counter, “But they freely chose to consume what contributed to their own deaths. Unknown exposure to a deadly virus, however, is not a choice and is beyond our reasonable control unless we all stay home.” Yes, but if saving lives is our most paramount consideration then banning red meat and cigarettes would remove our freedom to choose them, and there would be many fewer deaths from heart disease and cancer. So I think the comparison is valid.
Cumulative uncertainty does not warrant decisive restrictions
It’s perfectly legitimate to override the the freedom of any known COVID-19 carrier to visit nursing homes. It’s something else entirely to severely (by degree or duration) restrict the freedoms of ALL people to congregate or enjoy a leisure activity because SOME MAY carry the virus and MAY contribute to another’s death. It’s often said that with freedom comes responsibility. It also comes with risk, and that includes contracting a virus when in close contact with others. Those who are at a higher risk can and should be responsible for minimizing their exposure to others.
When God is denied or ignored we ourselves bear the total weight of responsibility for life and death from unseen pathogens. As a Christian, I know that God has control over even the tiniest microbes and I am confident that he will protect me from COVID-19 unless he has some reason for allowing me to contract it. Either way, my life and health are primarily in his hands. But those who don’t have that confidence…who exclude God from involvement in the affairs of men…necessarily believe that our fate is completely in our own hands. So extreme and likely unwise measures are being taken to battle this virus because it’s all up to us, but we can’t even see what we’re battling and we don’t have perfect and complete knowledge by which to make all and only the right decisions. It’s like boxing blindfolded. We’re going to swing wildly and in every direction.
Over 2 million people die every year in the United States and each loss is a tragedy to someone. Of course we should take reasonable measures to try and reduce that number. But “life” is more than just moving and breathing…more than merely existing. The New York Times could easily fill another front page and more with hundreds of names and random personal info representing the hundreds of thousands of citizens who are still living, but suffering great loss because of the shutdown. These losses, it seems to me, are similarly incalculable.