Communicating Across a Chasm

Should we prioritize flattening the coronavirus's medical or economic curve?

Posted Mar 26, 2020

Centers for Disease Control, Public Domain
Source: Centers for Disease Control, Public Domain

This dialogue synthesizes actual exchanges about the coronavirus that I’ve had with some smart people regarding whether, for now, to prioritize flattening the medical curve or the economic curve.

It highlights the difficulty of communicating across the ideological chasm. Of course, it has implications for discussing all manner of differences, including those that have riven the nation since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

See if you're able to remain fair-minded as you evaluate the two perspectives:

Medical: We can worry about the economy later. We have to save lives now.

Economic: At a cost of trillions of dollars the government nor the taxpayer have, you’ll mainly save some old people for a while, so they can die of more painful, expensive diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes. And economic tanking causes many deaths, due to increased crime, lack of food and especially health care,

Medical: What sort of a message do we send when we say, as Britain tried to do and then got shamed for, that we’re going to deliberately allow more people to die?

Economic: We should be sending them an honest message, that we’ll cause more misery with emotional appeals than with rational analysis. People hate politicians because they prioritize what will get them reelected over what will do the most good.

Medical: The honest politician would say, “Chances are that in a few months, government and private sector efforts along with seasonality will likely give us a reduction in coronavirus cases so we can then reallocate more resources toward rebuilding the economy."

Economic: It's not at all clear that it's worth shutting down the entire country, closing businesses and even parks because of a small percentage of irresponsible people. And taxpayers will pay directly and indirectly for the “stimulus": The government will print more money, and go yet deeper into debt (The US debt is $24 trillion,) which will reduce the value of people’s dollars. In addition, thhe govt will end up likely having to raise taxes.

Government should just coordinate distribution of ventilators and PPEs, and subsidize promising but poorly capitalized private-sector efforts to create a vaccine or treatment, and return the rest of the money to the taxpayer. They’d get a lot more than $1,200. To be liberal about it, return all the money just to families earning less than $75,000 a year.

Medical: There’s worldwide consensus that what you economist types call “The Great Shutdown” is essential. How can you have the hubris to defy all that?

Economic: Those brilliant sorts assert that although 56% of all coronavirus cases are in the New York City metro area, we should have a nationwide shutdown. Is that wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars we don’t have? As I mentioned, the federal debt is $24 trillion. The call for millions of tests is equally unwise: Most people test negative and most of those who test positive get sent home. It's wiser to say, “If you’re short of breath, come in. Otherwise, stay home and treat it like a flu.”

Medical:  Economic and political questions are appropriately debated later. We must, as philosophers such as John Rawls urge, not be purely utilitarian here. Can we call ourselves a civilized society if we deliberately let more people die so we can keep people employed?

Economic: You’re ignoring the human pain that economic collapse would bring. Millions of lost jobs mean they can’t pay the rent, plus likely food and drug shortages, and unaffordable health care, which will lead to violent crime.

Medical: You're assuming long-term economic collapse rather than short-term economic decline. That's a far from certain assumption.

The takeaway

So, were you able to remain fair-minded as you considered both perspectives?

The world views of the medical versus economic curvists are as different as those of today's Democrats and Republicans, immigration liberals vs. conservatives, even cognitive-behavioral therapists and Freudians.

Effective communication around sensitive issues demands great restraint and open-mindedness. In the end, the future of the world may depend on it.

I read this aloud on YouTube.