The Road to Recovery Isn’t Paved With the Bodies of America’s Seniors

Against the 'Logan’s Run right.'

I must confess, the absolute last thing I predicted for this year was the rise of the Logan’s Run right. Logan’s Run, for those who don’t remember, was a 1976 movie that imagined the 23rd century as a hedonist’s paradise of pleasure and plenty, but with an important catch. This future was only for the young. When you turn 30, your time is up. Time to die. You can watch the trailer in all of its 1970s schlocky glory here:

Two Sundays ago I wrote an extended piece about the sacred Christian duty to care for America’s senior citizens. I’d already seen signs online that some right-wing voices were minimizing the severity of COVID-19 because it was disproportionately dangerous for the elderly, and I was concerned that some of the media figures who senior citizens trust most were peddling outright disinformation to a vulnerable population.

Since that piece, public discourse has taken an odd and troubling turn. As the scale of the economic damage from the COVID-19 virus becomes clear (there were 3.3 million jobless claims filed last week, the most ever) more voices have started to argue that senior citizens should be prepared to sacrifice their health and even their lives to reopen the economy. Here, for example, was the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, on one of the most popular cable news programs in the United States arguing that seniors should be willing “take a chance” with their own lives to put the economy back to work:

Lest you think this is an outlier, Fox’s Brit Hume followed up on the same show and called Patrick’s view “entirely reasonable.” Glenn Beck then declared that he’d “rather die than kill the country.” 

This is an incoherent, blunt, and emotional version of a more sophisticated argument —that while we shouldn’t throw older Americans to the wolves, perhaps the economic pain isn’t worth the extraordinary care we’re taking to protect our most vulnerable citizens. Let’s quarantine seniors and sick Americans as much as we can and get back to work.

We’ll deal first with the blunt and emotional argument. It doesn’t work even in the most amoral, utilitarian terms. Simply put, if you get sick you’re not saving the country. You’re taxing medical facilities. You’re taxing your family. You’re creating challenges with your own employer. And, crucially, you’ve likely made between two and three other people sick. Courting greater coronavirus risk for the sake of the economy isn’t dying to “save us.” It could well mean dying and hurting us. 

Moreover, no political movement should think in purely utilitarian terms. The pro-life movement in particular has for a long time rejected purely utilitarian arguments about human life, including when those arguments are grounded in poverty, prosperity, or crime. Writing today in the New York Times, Russell Moore speaks a truth that some on the right need to hear once again:

Vulnerability is not a diminishment of the human experience, but is part of that experience. Those of us in the Christian tradition believe that God molded us from dust and breathed into us the breath of life. Moreover, we bear witness that every human life is fragile. We are, all of us, creatures and not gods. We are in need of air and water and one another.

But let’s also deal with the more sophisticated version of the argument—that the way we deal with the increased risk borne by older Americans while also minimizing economic damage is by limiting their exposure while everyone else gets back to work. Seniors stay home. Younger Americans stay on the job. 

This isn’t a novel idea. Indeed, a version of this approach was the United Kingdom’s initial strategy for combating coronavirus. The U.K. abandoned it, quickly. Why? Because the best available modeling indicated that a mitigation strategy would lead to ICU admissions at eight times the nation’s capacity. It projected a staggering death toll. And so, on Monday, Great Britain changed to a suppression strategy. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown. Britons were to remain at home, permitted to leave for only four specified reasons. The lockdown will be reviewed in three weeks. 

I know there are people who will not believe any scientific modeling. They’ve been led astray too many times. So, let’s think about common sense. Coronavirus is particularly dangerous for people 60 and older. That’s roughly 69 million Americans. Millions more younger Americans possess one or more of the risk factors that can make them as vulnerable as the elderly. 

Can we really wall them off from society and carry on with our lives? Extended families still exist in this country. Millions of Americans live with their parents and grandparents. Millions live with those who have compromised immune systems. Do we wall them off as well? Because if they conduct business as usual and then come home to their vulnerable family members, then the effectiveness of the quarantine is dramatically diminished. 

Moreover, much of the faith in the idea that if we wall off older Americans that younger Americans can sail through just fine, facing little more than a version of the flu, is just wrong. Earlier this week, Ann Coulter posted a much-mocked tweet that indicated exactly the opposite point she intended to make:

Even if you’re under 60, COVID-19 can pack a terrible punch. The chart above shows death rates. The chart below shows hospitalizations and ICU admissions based on initial American data:

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It’s also worth repeating that the very idea that loosening restrictions will revive the economy is almost certainly wrong. Presently, while the restrictions are exacerbating economic distress, they are not its ultimate cause. I’m going to repeat two tweets that I posted earlier this week. The basic point is simple—at present, the economic downturn exists because of the virus, and if we don’t arrest the spread of the virus, we won’t revive the economy:

When a vicious virus is spreading in society, large numbers of people will change their behavior and limit their economic activities no matter what the government says. 

Moreover, can we dispense with the idea that COVID-19 will “destroy” or “kill” our country? It will not. To declare that our nation will survive is not to minimize in any way the immense suffering caused by large-scale job losses. Our nation has survived economic shocks and panics going back to the founding. 

We survived the Great Depression. We survived the Great Recession. We will survive our present economic challenge, and through the immense resources of the most powerful nation in the history of the earth, we can blunt its impact on those men and women who’ve suffered the most extreme economic harm.

And if you think that the lives lost due to the consequences of economic downturns may well outstrip the lives saved by economic restrictions, you might be surprised at the data. It turns out there’s substantial evidence that death rates decrease during recessions and even depressions. This was true even during the Great Depression. And the Great Recession. That in no way means that recessions or depressions are desirable. They are dreadful. They cause terrible pain. But public health is complex, and the economy impacts human beings in very complicated ways. 

Finally, to state the arguments above is not to argue that economic restrictions must stay in place indefinitely and that they represent the only viable strategy for fighting the virus, especially over the long term. Let’s go back to Great Britain. Yesterday, one of the same scientists who projected catastrophe if Britain pursued its initial “mitigation” strategy gave hopeful testimony about the nation’s suppression order to a parliamentary committee. You likely don’t have 40 minutes to watch it all, but here’s a key segment:

As Britain’s National Health Service ramped up its ICU capabilities and as Britain pursued its suppression strategy, Ferguson testified that Britain would have sufficient ICU capacity to handle the influx of cases. Moreover, he testified that the period of suppression could well be followed by a British version of the South Korean strategy, which depended on very extensive testing and contact-tracing

Again, that’s for Britain. We can’t assume that every national strategy or solution will look the same, but one thing is crystal clear—the coronavirus recovery should not happen on the backs of America’s most vulnerable citizens. Protecting vulnerable Americans is part of the path to recovery, not an obstacle to national revival. 

One last thing ... 

There are always silver linings, even in very dark clouds, and one of the small silver linings of the dark cloud of the coronavirus sports stoppage is that Twitter once or twice a day resurrects a good sports memory and spreads it far and wide. Today, both Vince Young and Tim Tebow are trending, for these clips. I share them for my Texas and Florida readers. Enjoy:

Photograph of an elderly couple in a senior living center by Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images.