illustration of an elephant sitting on a person's chest

You’re on a gurney in a bright hallway of a hospital emergency room having trouble breathing, when an intense pain grips your chest.  You want to cry out, but everything fades to black. 

Later – you have no idea how much later – you wake to commotion nearby.  Opening your eyes, you find someone holding two paddles with wires attached stepping back as another person watches lines on a beeping machine.

A woman – apparently a doctor — says “cardiac arrest,” which gets your attention.  But she turns to join a conversation with another doctor and your wife.  You hear “go back to work,” and you’re confused.  But you then realize doctors are arguing about your rehab and when you can return to your job.  Meanwhile, your chest feels like an elephant is sitting on it, and you have that sensation again, as the room start to spin.

Amid a medical crisis is usually not the best time to discuss recovery.  Doctors normally prefer to stabilize the patient first.  Yet, here we are.

Public health officials say our worst days are still ahead for COVID-19 spread in most parts of the United States.  Yet, President Trump declared this week he “would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” because “we can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.”

The President isn’t alone.  Nearly two weeks ago, a Wall Street Journal editorial (one of many) questioned social distancing measures in cold, calculating terms. “Some number of respiratory deaths will be avoided (really delayed since we all die),” wrote the columnist.  “But we’ll be spending a lot more than we’ve ever been willing to spend before to avoid flu deaths.”

The Federalist Society went further in an article declaring “It is time to think outside the box and seriously consider a somewhat unconventional approach to COVID-19: controlled voluntary infection.”  Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick suggested to Fox News that “lots of grandparents” would be willing die to avoid impacting their grandchildren’s financial future with extended business shutdowns.  Echoing the Wall Street Journal viewpoint, former Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich was clear this week where he stands on putting people back to work sooner rather than later.  “We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know,” Kovacevich said.  “Do you want to suffer more economically or take some risk that you’ll get flu-like symptoms and a flu-like experience? Do you want to take an economic risk or a health risk?”

We see a common premise: avoiding economic trauma is more important than preventing a medical one.  Human lives are to be weighed on a scale opposite stock indices and unemployment figures.

The United States now has more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other nation.  Doctors and public health professionals are very clear coming days will only get worse, even with prevention measures in place.  But, without these steps, projections are devastating.  An interactive model from a group of epidemiologists published in the New York Times predicts ending social distancing by Easter could lead to a total of 1.3 million lives lost to COVID-19 in the US by October.  Whereas sticking with these measures 60 days could bring the death toll down to ~82,300 deaths.

Those prioritizing profits over people understate the likely toll on human life.  But they also greatly oversell our prospects for “getting back to normal.”  And, what does that even mean?

Just how resilient is an economy where $6 trillion of wealth can be erased in one week by panicked investors reacting to world events?  As someone taking a substantial hit to my retirement savings, the impact is very real.  But a rational question might be: Did I really lose that wealth, or did I never actually have it?

These days, I’m taking mental inventory of my possessions (residence, lake cabin, pontoon boat, two cars, furnishings, etc.) and asking the only questions that matter: Can I eat it?  Can it shelter me?  Can it get me someplace to get those things?  Or, can I trade it for those things?

The people most anxious to push financial recovery over public health are stuck with the delusion our economy was healthy, normal, and sustainable before.  That it’s just this sudden concern with loss of human life holding us back.  That thinking is exactly the attitude bringing us to the precipice. 

The pandemic is no one’s fault individually. But, to claim it isn’t our collective fault is a lie we tell ourselves.

Relentless focus on financial bottom lines has led us to undervalue pandemic preparedness so much the President of the United States eliminated the function in 2018.  (This despite a pandemic scenario being one of the roleplay exercises outgoing Obama staffers used in 2017 to prep the incoming Trump team.)  Americans wanted someone to run government like a business, and, by golly, he did.  And here we are.  Pandemic preparedness — gone.  EPA – nearly gone.  Scientists in key parts of the government — gone.

Well, it’s almost as though an economy fueled by insatiable consumerism and propped up by interest rate cuts on demand wasn’t such a good thing after all.

Our collective quest for wealth at the expense of health led to the environmental hazards of the last half of the 20th century.  It led us to the climate crisis of the 21st century.  It has spawned countless health risks that pervade our living world to the extent life expectancy in the US is declining.

Pandemics are scary, and this one is bad.  But, when just the possibility of shut down for a few weeks is enough to spark the largest selloffs in Wall Street history…  Well, it’s almost as though an economy fueled by insatiable consumerism and propped up by interest rate cuts on demand wasn’t such a good thing after all.

This severe financial pain wasn’t something I expected to live through in what’s left of my life at age 60.  But, it’s also something most of us could see coming in rare moments of clarity.  Anyone capable of considering life beyond next quarter knew this was not sustainable, but we convinced ourselves the bust would come after we cashed our own chips.

Yet, here we are, hoping each new morning we wake to find it was just a bad dream.  That life is still… normal.  But it never was.

These hardened hearts telling us no amount of prevention can save everyone are right.  Suffering and loss are on our doorsteps, but we can still do much to ease it and avoid the worst.  When these people tell us it’s just not worth the financial cost, they’re not being honest.  That cost is not just the tab for saving human lives today, it’s a bill we’ve run up all those years we put profits ahead of people and our planet.  And, there is no running out on this check.

Sacrificing lives to keep the illusion of wealth alive is a bad bet.  It’s the addicted gambler who’s burned through his credit line and is down to one last “Hail Mary” roll of the dice.

Truth be told, we were never going to make the adjustments we needed to make when the market was on it’s historic bull run, and the news we were being told about the economy was all good.  (Even when reality on the streets was often telling us otherwise.)  But, now, those adjustments have been made for us.  The only remaining question is how we move forward from here.

Collectively, we still have that elephant sitting on our chest, and the room has not quit spinning.  But we are learning more everyday and finding innovative ways to weather the health crisis and limit the loss of human life.  That work must continue still for the foreseeable future.

Beyond that, we must rebuild not only our local and national economies, but the world’s as well.  But, our grandparents did that, and we can too.  I only hope we have learned enough to rebuild on a more solid foundation.  For our grandparents, that foundation was each other.  It’s time to start there again.


Image Credit: the illustration of an elephant sitting on a person's chest was created by David Blackwell (Flickr/Creative Commons) – note: a broom and bucket were removed by with apologist David Blackwell.

Maurice Carter

Maurice Carter

Maurice Carter is President and Founder of Breathe-Water, LLC, where he uses community building, storytelling, consulting, and social media to enable businesses, non-profits, and communities to understand and harness forces for positive change. An Atlanta native living in Covington, GA, Maurice is an active community volunteer, a freelance columnist, and an advocate for causes that build community and promote thoughtful responses to the opportunities and challenges of our day.