We are a death-denying society.
We think, “Death is bad, life is good.”
Even God says: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
The Lord of Hosts tells us to choose life over death; who are we to argue?
So we try to live, as high on the hog as we can, and we do everything possible to avoid death. Even some impossible things, to avoid death, we attempt. We try to shut death out of our houses, out of our schools, out of our clinics, out of our hospitals, out of our emergency rooms. We try to shut death out of our mortuaries and cemeteries, preferring a quick cremation, followed by a “memorial” service that focuses on reliving our happy memories of the—uh, that is, you know, dear old Uncle Jack, bless his soul.
Most effectively, we shut death out of our consciousness. The Grim Reaper is barred from the threshold of our thoughts. We live in uneasy assurance that there is no such thing as death. Death is taboo.
Yet, AS IF BY SOME MIRACLE, people keep dying.
A Gentleman in a Dustcoat Trying
They die a few at a time, here or there. They die of heart ailments and strokes; they die of cancer; they die of accidents; they die of murder; they die of suicide. Sometimes they die unaccountably: I once read about a man who jumped off a four-foot-high platform at a county fair, and at the time his feet hit the ground he was dead. The coroner could only scratch his head.
Whatever the cause, by age 120 or so, we achieve one hundred percent mortality.
Once in a long while there comes a great epidemic, or a pandemic. You might say the very definition of such an event is that it taxes our resources as a whole society, not just as an individual or a family or a town.
Now we have COVID-19. We have mobilized against this pandemic at a scale, in a timeframe, and in specific ways by which no disease in human history has been resisted.
In America—I can’t speak for other societies, but yes, in America—we have mobilized chiefly, it seems, to deny death its victims.
Through a panoply of means, some new and some time-tested, we fight this dread disease. The dread thing about this disease is its death toll.
You don’t hear people saying, “I sure hope I don’t catch the COVID, it’s a pretty rough thing to go through.”
Those who recover occupy none of our attention, regardless how harrowing their escape. All the emphasis is on preventing death.
If it were just one among the crowd of viruses that constantly assail us, claiming a few lives here and there, nobody would make a big deal about it. But COVID-19, because of its novelty (as in “novel coronavirus”), is statistically forecast to sweep through the world, taking millions of lives from populations that start with zero immunity to it.
At this writing it has claimed about 42,000 Americans, but who knows what the coming months may bring?
According to our trusted experts—and I do trust their expertise—our most effective weapon against the onslaught has been “social distancing.” We seem to have dramatically reduced the death toll by staying away from one another—a method that has dealt a dire blow to our national economy. But that method has worked.
All our physical distancing and other measures have slowed the progress of the disease, not stopped it. We have deflected the incidence of death from COVID-19; we have not banished death altogether. Remember the early days, when our experts first recommended these measures. The slogan was, “Flatten the curve.” There was no thought of eliminating the disease altogether.
The point of all our efforts was simply to reduce the caseload to what our hospitals and medical professionals could handle.
It has always been in the cards that a lot of people were going to die from this disease.
There is a reason, Dear Reader, that I belabor this obvious point.
Now that we have blunted the coronavirus attack, our leaders work on means to bring back the economy. This is no trivial concern. It will take a complex strategy, with a well-calibrated balance between, on the one hand, fostering more freedom of movement for productive endeavors; and, on the other, protecting the most vulnerable from exposure to a highly contagious disease organism.
It is not just the president who wants to get the economy working again. Responsible politicians of both parties and executives of businesses large and small share this urgency. They bear a heavy responsibility to restore the systems and mechanisms that provide us all with food, clothing, shelter, transportation, entertainment, education, health care, social satisfaction, and all the other things we require—including paychecks—before additional damage is added to what those systems have already sustained.
It would be foolhardy simply to drop all the new practices we have adopted and go on a binge of “pre-pandemic normalcy.” If anyone seriously proposes this, they ought to think more thoroughly.
And if anyone seriously thinks that loosening any of the present restrictions is irresponsible, they also ought to think more thoroughly.
How often have we heard it said that no cost is too great to save a single human life? Quite often, to my recollection. Remember, in our society, death is taboo. Consider the refrain oft-voiced by the late actor DeForest Kelley, playing Doctor McCoy on the original Star Trek series:
“Dammit, Jim, there are lives at stake!”
Yes, Bones, there are.
There are always lives at stake. No matter what we do, or what we don’t do, lives are at stake. People will live this way, or that way; people will die this way, or that way.
Seldom are we given a simple choice between life and death. Commonly, we make hundreds of microchoices—to walk or drive, to eat a fish or a steak, to floss or not to floss, to wash our hands or leave them unwashed—each decision tending either to promote life or to hasten death, yet no single decision dispositive.
Right now, a particular subset of microchoices is forced on us by the disease— commended to us as mandatory or at least highly beneficial. In weeks to come, those choices, one by one, will become antiquated and irrelevant.
Life will go on. In the midst of it, people will go on dying.
Not you, any time soon, Dear Reader, I pray.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)