healthcare / News

COVID-19: Your Money, or Your Life?

by Angela Vullo

March 27, 2020–Those of us who are baby boomers, might remember the famous sketch by Jack Benny from the 1960s.

A mugger stops the comedian in the street and says, “Your money or your life”.  After several seconds, when Benny does not respond, the mugger says, “Well?”  Benny annoyingly answers, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking. “

With the spread of the coronavirus and its effect on the economy, coupled with the ominous death rattles of the U.S. financial system, that seems to be the painful choice in America today. But today, it’s no laughing matter.

COVID-19: Your Money, or Your Life?

An elderly coronavirus victim, Geneva Wood, who recovered.

The question has been posed.  Should America continue its policy of increasingly stringent “social distancing” in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus, or should we go back to business as usual, even if it means a threat to our lives, in order to “save the economy?”

Whose Economy?

The first question is, whose economy are we saving?  Wall Street on Parade spilled the beans on March 25, when it reported the details of the government stimulus package.  Wrapped in rhetoric about rescuing “Main Street,” the package involves another huge Wall Street bailout. I quote:

Americans got their first whiff that this was going to be another massive giveaway to Wall Street banks, just as happened from 2007 to 2010, when White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow appeared at the White House briefing yesterday evening. Kudlow revealed that the stimulus plan is actually a $6 trillion package — $2 trillion to struggling Americans and $4 trillion to dispense as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the Federal Reserve see fit. Since the Federal Reserve has seen fit since September 17 of last year to flood the trading houses of Wall Street with $9 trillion cumulatively in revolving loans, one can reasonably expect that this is where the new $4 trillion will be going.

Meaning that while some necessary relief will go to the American people, the bulk of the aid will go to Wall Street once again. And the U.S. physical economy – transportation, water systems, energy, and more – will once again take a back seat to financial speculation.

Stock market greets the federal rescue package.

One of the most glaring deficits in the package is its treatment of New York, as both New York Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor de Blasio immediately pointed out. According to the New York Times,

Mr. Cuomo complained on Wednesday that the package was “terrible” for New York. He said that only $3.1 billion was earmarked to help the state with its budget gap, a sum his office said was disproportionately low compared with what states with fewer confirmed cases and with smaller budgets were in line to get.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking at a news briefing later on Wednesday, went further, calling the deal “immoral.” Mr. de Blasio said New York City would be getting only $1 billion, despite having one-third of the country’s virus cases. He said he planned to appeal directly to President Trump, a native New Yorker, to “fix this situation.”

“Leaders” weigh in

President Trump is apparently hysterical about the effects of the measures being taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus on the stock market, and how it might affect his chances for reelection.  Up until the rescue package was passed in the Senate on March 25, all the gains that had been made since his election had been wiped out. On March 24, he declared that he wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” a little more than two weeks away.  Trump hopes to see the churches “packed on Easter Sunday,” and thinks it would be a “beautiful thing.”

On the other hand, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has put out his stark coronavirus warning: “We’re not slowing it, and it is accelerating on its own.”  “We’re now looking at a bullet train.”  Cuomo said, “We haven’t flattened the curve, and the curve is actually increasing.  The apex is higher than we thought, and the apex is sooner than we thought.  That is a bad combination of facts.”

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo

The Governor has rebuked the President for sending too few ventilators and other equipment to New York. “What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?”  “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.”

Yet despite the escalating spread of the virus, even outside the New York City epicenter, some local officials are keying off the President’s statement. Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick went one step further, demanding that the population should ease up on distancing in order to “save the economy” despite the risk, especially to seniors, who have been the group most likely to die from the effects of the virus.

COVID-19: Your Money, or Your Life?

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick

In a statement almost beyond belief, Patrick indicated that grandparents should be willing to die for the economic future of their grandchildren.  Patrick says, “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?”  “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Cuomo retorted to this insane comment, “My mother’s not expendable, “We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable. And we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.”

In fact, it would not simply be seniors who would be at terrible risk should a blanket opening-up occur.  New York officials have indicated that, contrary to the situation reported from China, a significant percentage of the patients hospitalized in New York City with coronavirus have been under 50 years of age.

False Choices

What has to be faced is the fact that neither putting people back to work (“the economy”), nor intense lockdowns or quarantines, represent pathways out of the current crisis in themselves. The prerequisite is a crash effort to produce the health care infrastructure, scientific knowledge, and supplies which have been allowed to dwindle to a “just-in-time” level of criminal unpreparedness.[1]  This process has occurred over decades, but has also indubitably been furthered by the Trump Administration.

A crucial part of the supplies required to fight diseases like the coronavirus is the ability to test massively, an ability that still does not exist in our country. Confirming who has the virus (and is thus contagious) and who had it (and is presumably thus immune) is absolutely essential to safely sending people back to work, including in critical medical centers.  Yet today, even front-line healthcare workers cannot get tested in many places without exhibiting serious symptoms—and at that point they may have infected many others.

COVID-19: Your Money, or Your Life?

Lines of people waiting for testing in Queens, New York.

It is true that testing has increased. President Trump bragged on March 24 that “We have tested more in eight days than South Korea in eight weeks.” There is some doubt about the numbers in the United States, but even if it’s true, South Korea has a much smaller population, and its quick action has apparently allowed them to avoid blanket shutdowns and keep the death rate way down. Why did the U.S. wait almost eight weeks?  The virus broke in the United States on January 21.  Why was testing not begun then and have the problems taken so long to correct?

There is no question but that we must get people back to work, and that means that the government must take radical measures, as FDR did during the Great Depression.  We need an immediate focus on building hospitals and other equipment, including protective gear, ventilators, etc., to ensure the safety of our people. We need national coordination, not states competing for scarce resources. This calls for major federal investments into the physical economy, which can best be done with the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank with trillions of dollars at its disposal.  When the country faced existential crises, just as we face today, whether it was under Washington and Hamilton, Quincy Adams, Lincoln, or FDR, such a bank was used as the foundation to reverse those conditions.

If similar measures are not taken immediately, the situation will continue to get worse, putting us in a worst-case scenario. Some hospitals in New York City are already well on their way to an Italian-style horror show, with bodies piling up.

The case for quarantine

In the meantime, we have to try to contain the virus. In accordance with the overriding principle of the U.S. Constitution to “promote the general welfare,” it might be necessary, under these life and death circumstances, to implement a full quarantine.

As the United States developed historically, there have been significant measures taken in support of quarantine.

Quarantine began during the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages when Venice began the first formal system in order to protect her coastal ports from plague epidemics. Ships were held for 40 days, quaranta giorni, in order to prove that they were safe for travel.

Posted on the PBS.org website on October 12, 2004 is an article entitled “A Short History of Quarantine.”  For the purposes of our argument today, we have excerpted the portions that have to do strictly with the United States.

To summarize: From 1647 on, individual colonies intervened to use quarantine as a protection for their populations.  In 1663, the NYC General Assembly passed a law to protect its citizens from a smallpox epidemic.  In the 1700s, on the eastern seaboard, all the major towns and cities passed quarantine laws.   In 1738, due to a threat of smallpox and yellow fever, New York City set up a quarantine station off Bedloe’s Island (home of the Statue of Liberty).  A similar station was erected by Philadelphia in 1799.  Over the next half century further measures were taken to quarantine ships from entering ports. In 1863 New York passes a Quarantine Act, giving authority to a special quarantine health officer to detain any ship.

Ravages of the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia.

As this blog reported in a post on U.S. public health measures last week, the Federal government itself also has a long record of action, including quarantine. The first Federal Quarantine Act was passed in 1796 in an effort to prevent the spread of small-pox.  Periodic epidemics of Yellow Fever also spurred Federal intervention, including the establishment of the network of Marine hospitals which eventually evolved into the Public Health Service.[2] Some notable steps in that process are noted below:

1879 

“Amid concern about yellow fever, the U.S. Congress establishes the National Board of Health, in part to assume responsibility for quarantine in cases where states’ actions had proven ineffective. The board tries but fails to impose a national quarantine, and it dissolves for lack of funding in 1883.”

1893 

“The U.S. Congress passes the National Quarantine Act. The act creates a national system of quarantine while still permitting state-run quarantines, and it codifies standards for medically inspecting immigrants, ships, and cargoes, a task now in the hands of the federal Marine Hospital Service.”

1944 

“The Public Health Service Act is codified, clearly establishing the quarantine authority of the federal government, which has controlled all U.S. quarantine stations since 1921.”

1967

“The U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare transfers responsibility for quarantine to the National Communicable Disease Center, now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

COVID-19: Your Money, or Your Life?

The CIA’s 2000 report predicting future infectious diseases.

2001

“In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, health officials, at the behest of the CDC, release a draft of the proposed Model State Emergency Health Powers Act. The act gives states greater powers to quarantine people in the event of a bioterrorist attack involving a lethal microbe such as smallpox. By July 2002, emergency health powers legislation has passed in 19 states and been introduced in 17 others.”

2004

“The Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, part of the CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases, controls quarantine issues in the United States today. The Division oversees eight national quarantine stations—in New York, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Honolulu. At present, federal, state, and some city health officials have the right to isolate or quarantine individuals who are ill or may become ill with a potentially lethal infectious disease.”

Do We Value Life?

It has been shown over centuries that quarantine can save lives.  Yet after a very short period of time, the public discussion in the United States has turned to setting rules for who shall live, and who shall die.

On March 26, The Anchorage Daily News reported that, “Hospitals across U.S. consider universal do-not-resuscitate orders for coronavirus patients.” It writes:

Health-care providers are bound by oath – and in some states, by law – to do everything they can within the bounds of modern technology to save a patient’s life, absent an order, such as a DNR, to do otherwise. But as cases mount amid a national shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, hospitals are beginning to implement emergency measures that will either minimize, modify or completely stop the use of certain procedures on patients with covid-19.

Is this a policy the nation, including its so-called “right-to-life” leaders, are prepared to accept?

Frontline healthcare workers who put their lives on the line to fight for patients.

A nation that holds reckless disregard for human life is morally bankrupt and unfit to survive. There are alternatives, even at this late date. The $500 billion plus which the Federal government is preparing to infuse into the speculative banking system (despite nominal controls put in the bill) could be spent producing desperately needed equipment, building more hospitals, and radically ramping up testing.  To try and save the bankrupt financial system at the expense of our people is mass murder.

America, today, stands at that deadly crossroads. How do we value human life?

When the U.S stock market went up in smoke in 1929, someone remarked, “It’s only paper.”  I certainly hope that an American life, or any life, is worth more than just a piece of paper. Which will we fight to save?

[1] Warnings about the inevitability of new pandemics have been constant over the last decades, including a 2000 report by the CIA on the threat of infectious diseases, pictured above.

[2] The U.S. Public Health Service traces its beginnings to the 1798 establishment of Marine Hospitals for sick and disabled seamen, a proposal floated by Alexander Hamilton in 1792.

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