Sitting in my own tower of ivory privilege, I am so far untouched by COVID-19.
Don’t know anyone who has caught it, let alone been killed by it. I read the horror stories of abject lonely deaths in their thousands in the hospitals of London, New York and Milan, and I’m touched in the most abstract way.
Nevertheless, despite the pretty good odds I now have (being in Australia) of getting through this pandemic personally unscathed, I don’t find myself feeling an increasingly insistent demand that my old life be returned to me at the incidental cost of a few hundred or thousand deaths, slightly brought forward.
But that demand is what I keep seeing, persistently published in our mainstream media via op-eds from people we are accustomed to calling “conservative” although they are definitely not that.
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Ostensibly, the rationale is just some classic neoliberal rationality in action: the cost of economic shutdown is too high and not justified by the medical risk. Sooner or later we have to accept that some people must get sick and die as the affordable price of bringing the economy back to life, and sooner is way better than later.
Also, “herd immunity”.
First, herd immunity is language that nobody should be allowed to use unless they have a PhD in epidemiology and some idea of what they’re talking about. That’s not me, but I do know that it isn’t even a thing unless the risk of reinfection is off the table.
Which, so far, it isn’t. As for pontificating blowhards chucking it around with the abandon of Donald Trump spruiking malaria drugs, by all means plaster your pseudoscience on your Facebook page, but why are News and Nine publishing it?
Well, we know why, once we replace “conservative” with “reactionary” and remind ourselves of the endless ideology war which was only suspended for that moment when it looked like we may be completely cooked and there was nothing to argue over except the toilet paper.
It isn’t about the economy. It’s about the dislocation presently being felt by those who have become so used to being unchallenged in their perception of how the world really works.
Imagine the discomfort: you’ve spent your entire life being told and telling others about the cast-iron law of the market, lifters and leaners, debt and deficit, and the inherent evil of socialist thought.
Then, for the first time in the memories of everyone under 80, shit actually happens and what does every conservative government do? It saves the day by stretching the social safety net it has always denigrated, to prevent the fall.
Or, as socialists like to say: socialism.
This must not stand. But, the ruling class being above all pragmatists, not ideologues, their minds turn automatically to plain common sense. The fastest route to the return of all things to the way they used to be and naturally will, is most clearly not through waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine, nor the middle-ground cautious approach our chief medical officers are urging and the Morrison government is currently pursuing.
To be able to assert that, instead, the bandaid should be ripped off entirely, one must engage some cognitive dissonance.
Specifically, that what is happening in London and New York will not happen here. Not really a challenge for a seasoned opinion maker; you just ignore what doesn’t fit your thesis.
So we are blessed with the elegantly simple theory of herd immunity, buttressed by the assertion that COVID-19 only kills old people and barely troubles the more robust youth. Even more elegant, because it’s the same youth who will be carrying the intergenerational debt burden of keeping old people alive a bit longer than they would otherwise linger.
It’s only fair, in that context, that a sacrifice be made. Teetering perilously close to an argument that has the whiff of eugenics about it, our heroes argue that there’s no inhumanity in choosing a better future for the strong, when the alternative is decades of misery for everyone.
As long as we keep ourselves at the level of abstraction, which does not require us to contemplate what it means to suffocate to death isolated from every person you know, it’s got a logic to it.
Get the economy moving, return everyone to work, let the virus spread a bit and smooth a few dying pillows for people we’ve given the dignity of being allowed to hug their grandkids once more. If they die, well, we all die eventually.
It’s true, of course, that the saving of life is not an absolute. COVID-19 will force a more difficult moral choice on governments than the usual balances of cost and benefit that they confront when budgeting for health care. We’ll have to bear a cost, one way or the other, and part of it will be counted in lives lost.
But this is not a thought experiment.
It’s an appalling tragedy, happening right now before our eyes. The rush to give the privileged back what they feel has been temporarily removed from their grasp is unseemly. They’re able to express such mercenary awfulness because they don’t believe that they’ll, personally, ever be poor, sick or dead.
We are in a war, but some of us only want to know when our favourite restaurant will be reopening.