The Coronavirus: Counting the Cost

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The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Coronavirus: Counting the Cost

Let us suppose that tomorrow Justin Trudeau were to make the following announcement:

I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the experts have told us that it will take twenty years of extreme social distancing for us to be certain COVID-19 will not resurge. The good news is that we have developed the technology to fully automate production of all essential goods and the delivery of the same. Everyone is therefore ordered to remain in their homes for the next twenty years. All of your needs will be met. Robots will produce all the food and toilet paper and everything else you need and bring it to your home. There is no need for you to go outside. Armed drones will patrol the streets nonstop to enforce your compliance with this order. I am sorry that you will not be able to see your friends or loved ones outside of your immediate household who live with you again, except through video communication, for two decades, but it is necessary to prevent COVID-19 from resurging and flooding our health care system. I will remain in office for the duration of this period to see to it that everything functions smoothly. See you in twenty years.

Would we tolerate this?

Would we agree that the total loss of our freedoms of movement and association for two decades was a price worth paying in order to protect us from this virus?

I hope – which is probably a safer word to use here than assume – that most of us would answer “no” to both of these questions. Yet, with one significant exception, the differences between the hypothetical announcement and what we are actually being told are ones of degree rather than kind. It appears, however, that most of us would answer these questions “yes” had they been asked of what the government is actually saying.

This raises the interesting question of where the line falls between what we are willing to put up with from the government in terms of suppression of our basic freedoms in order to contain or combat this pandemic and what we are not. At what point does the price become too high?

The reluctance of many to think in terms of this question comes from the mistaken notion that the cost of the measures that our country and many others are taking to combat the COVID-19 pandemic is entirely, or at least mostly, economic. Those who hold this mistaken notion, then argue from the maxim that lives are more important than money, property, the economy and the like, that no economic cost is too high to achieve the end of saving lives from COVID-19. As I observed in my last essay, the premise of this reasoning is a lie concealed behind a moral truism. While it is true, of course, that lives are more important than material goods, if you wipe out material goods you will end up destroying lives.

Let us consider the point that I sought to make in the hypothetical Trudeau speech above by that one item that is a significant exception to the rule that it differs from what he is actually saying only by degree rather than kind. In the speech, Trudeau has found a technological solution to the problem of providing people with their essential needs while everyone is locked in their homes for their own good. Robots will do it all. No such solution is available in the real world. If it were, however, it would remove the economic element from the equation entirely. Yet the problem remains. How many, even with the assurance that all their material needs will be met, would consider living under a house arrest enforced by the most Orwellian of means for twenty years to be an acceptable cost to pay in order to stop COVID-19?

My point is that the cost of “extreme social distancing”, “isolation” and “shut down” over too long of an extended period of time, even with the economic element subtracted from that cost, is too high a price to pay. It is not a rational solution to the problem of the pandemic. Which is not surprising considering that it was quickly put in place by governments, on the advice of epidemiological experts, when they suddenly found that their earlier inattention to the outbreak when it was confined to China had brought it to their own doorsteps. Decisions made in haste are not likely to be thoroughly thought out rational decisions. Especially when you are trying to compensate for having earlier underreacted to a potential crisis. That is what leads to overreaction.

Andrew Cohen of the Ottawa Citizen in his recent comparison of the Canadian and American methods of handling this crisis clearly expresses his preference for the Canadian way of doing things over the American. I too prefer the Canadian way, although for me, that way is and always will be, defined by the Canada of 1867, whereas for Cohen, the Canadian way seems to be defined by whatever the Liberal Party says Canada is all about in the present moment. He mentions that Canadians tend to listen to and respect experts more than Americans, or at least the sitting American president. Perhaps that is true. In this case, however, the Canadian government is acting like it has been listening to only one kind of expert.

The kind of people we call experts today are the result of the centuries long process of the specialization of knowledge. If you are looking for something to do in your time of isolation you might want to consider reading Richard Weaver’s discussion of this process in Ideas Have Consequences. We have gone from prioritizing the ability to see the big picture to prioritizing the mastery of small subsets of knowledge. The person who has so mastered his own field of knowledge is the expert. Being an expert in one field does not translate into being an expert in all, or even competently knowledgeable in fields other than his own, and, while this is an over-generalization, of course, it is nevertheless the case that experts tend to have a kind of tunnel vision and are often grossly ignorant of other fields than their own.

Thus, the epidemiologists called upon to advise on how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent the medical system from crashing by being swamped have provided a solution that would work according to the knowledge available to them. That knowledge is limited to their own field. They are incapable of calculating the number of lives that would be lost due to problems such as mass starvation if we crash the economy in order to practice extreme social distancing. Note that the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is already warning of a looming global food shortage caused by these Communist anti-COVID measures. Indeed, they seem incapable of understanding that if you crash the economy to save the medical system, you lose the medical system too, because it is the economy that pays for the medical system. The people advising this strategy clearly do not possess even a basic understanding of economics, history (other than the history of disease outbreaks), and constitutional law. The government is clearly not listening to experts in these fields. If it was, it would not be so quick to take measures that could potentially recreate the Great Depression and the inflation of the Weimar Republic. Nor would it have attempted, as it did earlier this week, to pass a bill eerily similar to that which made Adolf Hitler into the dictator of Germany eighty seven years ago.

The government needs to listen to voices knowledgeable in these areas as well as those knowledgeable in containing epidemics. It would do well to pay heed to Dr. Garrett Hardin’s First Law of Human Ecology – “You cannot do only one thing”, which means that anything you do to produce a particular end or solve a particular problem, will have other repercussions elsewhere.

We also need to be listening to those who can tell us something about the long-term consequences of conditioning people to fear normal human contact – the friendly handshake, the warm hug, etc. – as the harbinger of death, and to treat electronic, long-distance, communication as an adequate substitute to be preferred. We had a big enough problem with people gluing their eyes to their smartphones or other electronic devices, immersing themselves in an online virtual world, and shutting themselves off from the real world and the living, breathing, people around them, before this crisis. “Extreme social distancing” will only make it worse. Perhaps someone can tell us what the likely repercussions will be of instilling in our populace the exact opposite mindset to those who went to war for us in 1939, willing to sacrifice themselves and die a horrible death rather than that we lose our freedoms. Karen Selick has made a convincing argument that one of the results of the shut down and stay home approach will be a huge rise in domestic violence. Obviously she is talking about the effects on people who have families. It would also be good to know from mental health experts what the effect on single people who live alone – a much larger percentage of our population than ever before – of cutting them off completely from human contact for months will be. How long will they be able to keep their sanity? How long before the suicide rates skyrocket? How long before people start to snap and do terrible things?

All of this must be factored into the cost that the government is forcing us to pay for stopping COVID-19.

One wiser and more knowledgeable than all the experts put together once said:

“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 16:25)

He was speaking of those who believe in Him and are martyred for their faith. Perhaps we should be considering the broader implications of the principle.