The New York Times recently published a report detailing how the coronavirus pandemic is expected to worsen food insecurity in impoverished regions around the world, adding to a growing repository of evidence demonstrating that, as Washington Examiner contributor Daniel Hannan has said, the virus has caused immense “damage to the living.”
For months, elected officials have debated the merits of various policies, with some arguing for a quicker reopening of the economy and others arguing for maintaining closures or other strict measures, setting up a sort of binary choice: Should we govern to save lives from the virus or to save the economy?
That may be a false dichotomy.
Sensible voices have advocated an approach that seeks to mitigate COVID-19 infections and deaths but treats economic and other health considerations with equal priority. The most sensible voices recognize that preventing COVID-19’s spread is an aim that cannot be pursued as full-throatedly as it was in March and April without catastrophic consequences. This New York Times report on hunger demonstrates the necessity of an approach that prioritizes economic health.
The report discusses many disruptions caused by the virus and by government actions taken to manage it, some of which have stressed food availability. For example, in South Africa, “When the pandemic emerged in March, the government ordered the shutdown of informal food vendors and township shops, unleashing the military to detain merchants who violated orders,” the report said. “That forced residents to rely on supermarkets — suddenly farther away than ever, given the lockdown of already woeful bus service.”
The report also makes a critical point about how interconnected global economies support more than just commerce. “Lockdowns imposed to halt the pandemic will this year deprive 250 million children in poor countries of scheduled supplements of Vitamin A, elevating the threat of premature death, according to UNICEF,” the report said. “The supplements strengthen the immune system, limiting vulnerability to diseases that opportunistically exploit malnutrition.”
Here is the takeaway: Basic health is very much dependent upon well-functioning economies and global supply structures, especially outside of the prosperous West. Healthy economies deliver wealth and pleasures, yes, but they also sustain people in their basic needs.
Various government policies during the pandemic have compromised health and the public good in other ways, too. In the United States, public health officials have been concerned about how school closures threaten the health of children. Not only does the absence of in-person learning threaten educational and social development, but many children of poor families rely upon government-funded food programs administered at schools. Replacing that source of nutrition, even with new appropriations in relief legislation, is not easy. This reason is one of the many why CDC Director Robert Redfield has repeatedly stressed the importance of opening schools to in-person instruction.
In a recent interview, Anthony Fauci expressed worry about how shutdowns have disrupted the administration of noncoronavirus-related healthcare such as routine cancer and other screenings, saying that the “bottom line is it is quite disruptive and has deleterious effects on how we handle other diseases.”
Drug abuse has also shown signs of worsening as a consequence of COVID-19’s social disruption. The Wall Street Journal reported that 21 of the country’s 50 largest counties have seen overdose deaths trending upward from 2019, with social isolation and job loss as possible contributing factors.
In First Things, philosopher and professor Robert Koons has given serious treatment to the conversation about the social costs associated with broad restrictions on movement and commerce. “The common good of public health no more requires that every death be prevented than the common good of economic security requires that every bankruptcy be prevented,” he writes.
These words of Koons are perhaps more necessary: “At minimum, we should say that it is not necessarily evil merely to forgo the opportunity to save lives [think of shutdowns] for the sake of some other good (including economic well-being).” As we have seen, economic well-being sustains and saves lives. It’s reductive to consider economic stability in merely materialistic terms.
The public will be litigating the U.S. coronavirus response until the election and well beyond. It should be remembered that as the eye has become fixed on COVID-19, we have collectively tended to forget about the many other problems preexisting the pandemic and which, in some cases, have been worsened by government policy responses to it.