“Let Them Die.” Health versus the “Economy”

In late March 2020, The Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Matthews, made an argument: old people should be happy to die for America’s economy. He used himself as an example:

“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 all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” But if they had? “If that is the exchange, I’m all in,” Patrick said. He continued: “That doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country, like me, I have six grandchildren, that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children… So my message is let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country, don’t do that, don’t ruin this great America.”

Matthews is only expressing an extreme version of a broader spectrum of opinion, which sees the “economy” as more important than people’s lives. US President Donald Trump stated on 24 March that we’re “going to be opening our country up for business, because our country was meant to be open.” Similar deadly calculations have been made in Italy and the UK – where Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted on walking around hospitals shaking hands, until a dose of Covid-19 ironically revealed that perhaps this wasn’t the best practice. For others, Covid-19 is the “boomer remover” – the implication being that it will clear away dead wood and allow others to take into their rightful political, economic and social place. In Australia, Cory Bernardi agreed with Trump that “the cure is worse than the “disease.” He stated that the “flu season is just as bad” and that the “potential catastrophic economic consequences of this will do untold damage for, I think, many years to come.”

This attempt to place “economics” ahead of health explains a great deal of the Federal Government’s prevarication on its policies and confusion in its messaging – from the beginning. Gatherings of more than 500 people were dangerous, but Scott Morrison planned to attend a rugby game. People should stay at home, but a 30-minute haircut is fine and schools remain open. Schools remain open – and so on. In other words, this feet-dragging is not as “miscomprehension” or ignorance but a conscious policy choice that seeks to place the “economy” above (or at least in balance with) the goal of containing and eliminating Covid-19. Adjunct Professor Bill Bowtell, from the Kirby Institute for infection and immunity at University of New South Wales, argues that the Federal Government’s hidden policy has been that of “herd immunity”, that there was nothing that would halt its spread and the aim was to build up a high enough number of infections that eventually transition itself would be limited.

This economy over health approach might also explain the Federal Government’s hesitation to release their modelling for Coronavirus (which may be released shortly, though it is unclear how much detail will actually be handed out). What does that modelling show? How can we judge the Government’s response if we can’t see the data and analysis, which they rely on to make their decisions? As Sean Kelly argues:

In either situation, the recession will be deep. And will that relatively small extra health impact outweigh the lives lost as the virus spreads? We can’t know for sure, but we have a right to see the government’s workings. If the government has decided to, say, save 100,000 jobs over the long term at the cost of 2,000 lives now, it should tell us. Instead, we are being treated like children.

This situation, like any other, desperately needs democracy. This lack of public debate, lack of transparency, lack of democracy, has contributed, in Bowtell’s opinion, to the very bad outcomes and a long way away from the achievements that have been made in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan: “Why was it kept secret? Why was the [herd immunity] policy adopted? And from now on there’ll be words like, ‘this was unprecedented,’ ‘it could never be accounted for’, ‘once in a hundred years, once in a thousand years’ and ‘we’re doing the best we can.’ That’s rubbish!”

Indeed, Australia is becoming less and less democratic. Parliament has suspended for five months, though it may sit to pass various financial bills, and power has devolved to an “executive.”

These decisions have not come under much scrutiny, with a few like journalist Guy Rundle criticising it. Rundle argued in Crikey on 25 March: “The display of collective gutlessness and betrayal of democracy in suspending parliament for five months is … a wonder to behold … So, at a time when unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties and new police powers are being introduced, we are to be ruled by an appointed executive — drawn from the legislature, but separate from it — for five months, without scrutiny, questions, committees, review?”

We are still early in the entire Coronavirus process. There are still many questions that remain unanswered. Central to these will be the way our society seeks to balance health with economy. More central is in fact what we mean when we discuss the economy: are we referring to growth rates, profit rates, unemployment numbers – or what? Another way of considering it is this: how just was our economy in the first place, with its ever increasing divide between rich and poor, with its all powerful-corporations (many of which, like “big pharma” have little economic interest in permanent vaccines or cures) and its overworked and over-harried people who work in essential services: health, education, public utilities and service, and so on. What we mean by the economy needs debate too – and only an open democracy can provide that.

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