Life or Death

We are a death-denying society.

We think, “Death is bad, life is good.” 

Moses gets the word from Yahweh. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) fresco, Sistine Chapel. Public Domain.

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.

The Grim Reaper waits. Image by doom156, licensed under  CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

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.

COVID-19. Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, Center for Disease Control. Public Domain.

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. 

So What?

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. 

DeForest Kelley. Public Domain.

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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Wuhan that Aprille . . .

We’ll be having an unusual spring.

When vast public ills descend on us, usually we can pinpoint the moment, or the day, when they became manifest.

In the case of sudden events—the eruption of Vesuvius, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, etc.—the time of their occurrence, even to the second, is obvious to all.

John Martin’s 1821 painting Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Public Domain.

Other disasters roll out more slowly, and the precise moment we later remember is really an instant of realization, a time when the nature and dimensions of the threat suddenly crystallized. Thus it was at the Battle of Shiloh—April 6-7, 1862—when the emergence of forty thousand yipping rebels from the woods near a Tennessee River landing destroyed the wishful Northern hope that the Secession had almost run its course. Likewise, in the spring of 1965, the Students for a Democratic Society’s march on Washington served notice that the Vietnam War would not be, like previous wars, supported by most of the American public. 

The Slow Roll

So it is with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been raging, in China, since 1 December 2019. On 7 January 2020 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel notice for travelers to Wuhan, relating to “the cluster of cases of pneumonia of an unknown etiology.” On 9 January the World Health Organization confirmed the existence of a “novel coronavirus,” and the first death occurred in China.

On 19 January, cases began appearing in areas of China outside Wuhan. 

On 21 January, the United States reported its first laboratory-confirmed case, in the state of Washington. 

Li Wenliang. Fair use.

On 28 January, China’s Supreme People’s Court ruled that whistleblower, Li Wenliang, had not committed the crime of spreading “rumors” when on 30 December 2019 he posted to a WeChat forum for medical school alumni that seven patients under his care appeared to have contracted SARS. In their ruling, the Supreme People’s Court stated, “If society had at the time believed those ‘rumors’. . . perhaps it would’ve meant we could better control the coronavirus today. Rumors end when there is openness.”

On 6 February, Dr. Li died of the coronavirus illness.

By that time, there were thousands of cases in China and many cases in other countries of the world and certain cruise ships at sea or quarantined in ports. 

Since then, we have had daily reports of new illness and deaths in many places around the world, and in the United States. America’s and the world’s financial markets have crashed as airlines, cruise lines, and many other business have seen their customer streams and supply chains badly affected.

Moment of Truth

Yesterday—Wednesday, 11 March 2020—is when this illness became real to most of us: 

Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. Photo by lakesbutta. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
  • Tom Hanks caught it. And his wife, Rita Wilson. They have been diagnosed in Australia, where they are making a film.
  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that their annual basketball tournament would be played with practically nobody in the stands. (Today, they canceled the event entirely.)
  • The World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic (as if we didn’t know already).
  • Donald J. Trump made a speech from the Oval Office. Whether you liked it or not probably depends on what you think of Trump generally.
  • Norway closed, for crying out loud!

Now that Tom Hanks, our national Everyman, has caught the corona bug, and now that one of our great national festivals, the NCAA Tournament, has been canceled—COVID-19, overnight, has become dire in a way it was not before.

The Upshot

Classes, events, gatherings everywhere are being canceled or rescheduled. My own life has been affected: The University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute, an event many of us look forward to all year long, is suddenly off the books. We await, with bated breath, the new dates.

It’s most frustrating. But it really is necessary. A full-court press, in the realm of what we now call “social distancing,” is probably the greatest weapon we have to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus. It will save lives—mine for sure, maybe yours, too.

I have no advice for you, Dear Reader, any better than what you can get elsewhere. As Abraham Lincoln said in a much different context, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.” 

Please do your best to stay healthy. I need all the devoted readers I can get. 

Blessings and best wishes for a long, long life,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer.