We Don’t Have to Choose Between Our Health and the Health of the Economy

Economy Health Freedom Opinion

Image by Anna Shvets via Pexels

By Yehudit Mam

May 4, 2020

Most Americans support the containment measures. Without healthy Americans, we can’t have a healthy economy.

Police and the military have enforced strict lockdown rules forcing people into their homes in democracies like Italy and Spain. Most developed countries have enacted much more stringent containment measures than the United States. In contrast, American citizens have enjoyed a remarkable amount of freedom during the pandemic. In New York City, where I live and the hardest-hit place in the world, there is little if no enforcement of mask-wearing, staying home, or social distancing rules. In a country that worships individual freedom above all else, we are expected to be our own keepers.

Americans overwhelmingly approve the stay-at-home measures. According to The New York Times, “70 to 90 percent of the public support measures to slow the spread of the virus, even if they require temporarily yielding certain freedoms and allowing the economy to suffer in the short run.” 

But there are those who choose to believe that even these basic health guidelines are tyrannically curtailing their personal freedoms. Billionaire Elon Musk has been complaining of “fascism” on Twitter, and demanding to “FREE AMERICA NOW!” as if the steps that curb contagion are an affront to our liberty, which Musk defines as the freedom to send others back to work. He is joined by a chorus of business-first Republicans, including the Trump Administration, wealthy conservatives, and Fox News who are desperate for the economy to reopen.

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While the business boosters are acutely aware of the implications of a collapsed economy, they fail to see the terrifying ramifications for a disease for which we don’t yet have a vaccine or a cure. Coronavirus has sickened millions and has killed 60,000 Americans in four months, more than the American casualties over 20 years in the Vietnam War. They cry over the staggering economic losses but continue dismissing the toll in human lives. 

Trump refused to invoke the Defense Production Act for desperately needed medical supplies but has invoked it for the meatpacking business. It includes a chilling provision that companies cannot be liable for health risks to their workers. 

RELATED: Trump to Sign Executive Order Protecting Meat Processing Plants from Liability in COVID-19 Transmission

Vice president Pence cavalierly refused to wear a mask when he visited the Mayo Clinic, but donned one when he went to a factory the next day. Conscious or not, it’s a gesture that speaks volumes about what he and his party value: productivity over health.  

The prospect of a collapsed economy is certainly frightening. People should not have to worry about whether they will have food on the table and a roof over their heads. 

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But the insidious, asymptomatic spread of this pandemic means that we have to temporarily limit our individual freedoms in order not to endanger the lives of others. The mentality that individual freedom, profit, and free-markets take precedence over health, community, and society is American exceptionalism at its worst. 

When I moved to the U.S., it shocked me that every time there was news of a natural disaster or a health epidemic in the United States, the focus was always on how many billions of dollars these tragedies cost the nation. In Mexico, no one ever spoke of pandemics and disasters in monetary terms. It was always the loss of life and human suffering first. 

The economy cannot recover if entire communities are ravaged by death and disease. It cannot recover at the expense of its most vulnerable front-line workers. At companies like Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Target, Walmart, and FedEx workers organized a strike on May 1 to call attention to the dangerous conditions they face while their employers make record profits. 

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Even The Wall Street Journal agrees that according to the data from both economists and epidemiologists, “the benefits (of containment) exceed the costs.” Michael Greenstone and Vishan Nigam of the University of Chicago found “that the mortality benefits of social distancing are about $8 trillion or $60,000 per US household. Overall, the analysis suggests that social distancing initiatives and policies in response to the COVID-19 epidemic have substantial economic benefits.”

Freedom vs. health is a needless ideological battle. The equation is not that complicated: the economic impact is already painful, but it will be worse if we don’t save people’s lives. What is the price of freedom if it ends in death? 



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