German Lopez of Vox offers a read-worthy essay on our failure as a nation to answer the core question that would define our end goal for the coronavirus pandemic and the actions we need to take individually and in public policy to reach that goal: How many deaths from coronavirus will we accept?
Are 30,000 to 40,000 deaths a year too many? That’s generally what the country sees with gun violence and car crashes — and American policymakers, at least, haven’t been driven to major actions on these fronts.
Are as many as 60,000 deaths a year too many? That’s what Americans have tolerated for the flu.
Are 90,000 deaths a year too many? That’s the death toll of the ongoing drug overdose crisis — and while policymakers have taken some steps to combat that, experts argue the actions so far have fallen short, and the issue doesn’t draw that much national attention.
Is the current death toll — of more than 1,500 a day, or equivalent to more than 500,000 deaths a year — too much? Many people would say, of course, it is. But in the middle of a delta variant surge, Americans may be revealing their preferences as restaurant reservations are now around the pre-pandemic normal — a sign the country is moving on. “The loudest voices on social media and in public are way more cautious than the average American,” Jha said [German Lopez, “America Needs to Decide How Much Covid-19 Risk It Will Tolerate,” Vox, 2021.09.07].
Our failure to address that core question may be found in the heckle-match that was Tuesday’s Rapid City school board meeting… but let’s not slip into both-sidesism: the usual crowd of right-wing extremists who come to cheer on their suicidally anti-community school board majority were finally met by concerned citizens appalled at their insurgent school board’s lack of concern for children’s welfare and the good of others. The anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-science, anti-journalism crowd think freedom is absolute and want to do absolutely nothing about coronavirus; the decent people who showed up to shout back at the absolute antis and express their disgust with the new school board want government to fulfill its proper role of protecting public health and do something to prevent the spread of coronavirus in school.
The radicals’ destructive absolutism is epitomized by Rep. Phil Jensen (R-33/Rapid City), who said at the meeting that we aren’t responsible for other people’s health—”We are all responsible for ourselves.” That’s the same sentiment that new Rapid City school board president and extremist Kate Thomas expressed earlier this summer when she denied the moral and statutory obligation of our schools to protect public health. That ignorant sentiment is wrong; the conscientious, community-oriented sentiment of the citizens calling for more preventative measures against coronavirus is right.
Neither Jensen and Thomas’s wrong side nor the counter-protestors’ right side have offered a clear statement of the end goal they envision for coronavirus infection, hospitalization, and death numbers, but the extremists’ commitment to absolute freedom suggests any number of infections and deaths is acceptable, a position that contradicts the “pro-life” principles that Phil Jensen and others in his crowd espouse to win elections. They won’t say how many kids they are willing to kill today for their absolute freedom. These forked-tonguers justify their Noemish do-nothingism by sowing confusion about science when there should be none: as Lopez points out again, “Research has also found stricter restrictions reduce Covid-19 spread and death, and that masks work.” The proactive side doesn’t distract, dissemble, or contradict its own values: they recognize that we can and should do something to check the pandemic and prevent some level of human suffering and loss. They struggle, as do the public health experts Lopez interviews, to define an exact number of acceptable positive cases, but they know we can lower the cases by doing something more than chanting “Freedom!” and denying basic science.
Yes, we need to get clear as a community on the end goal of our coronavirus response. But extremists shouting for absolute freedom and zero public health intervention do not oblige us to argue for zero freedom and absolute public health intervention. Knuckleheads who try to shrug off all coronavirus hospitalization and death as “the natural order of things” and thus accept any level of harm do not oblige those of us interested in preserving society from their lazy and reckless absolutism by arguing for either an absolute elimination of harm or a specific, quantified level of reduced harm. Asked how many deaths from coronavirus we will accept, we can conscientiously say, “Well, we don’t know exactly how many we have to accept, but we want fewer than we have now and fewer than we’ll have if we do nothing.”