Is Economic Growth The New Moloch?, By Uddin Ifeanyi

It is no surprise that the U.S. leads other countries in its count of confirmed infections from the new coronavirus pandemic ― 3.5 million (and counting) as at the end of last week. At critical crossroads in the progression of the disease, leadership in the United States either made light of the implications of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) for the health of its people and economy, or like deer trapped in the headlights of a fast-approaching vehicle on a dark night in the country, froze. Understandably, the debate across the country around establishing priorities for managing the disease was not helpful either.

Lives or lucre? China’s is the go-to model for a response to this new existential dilemma. And it demonstrated how a brutal shutdown of the economy could help reduce both infections and deaths from the disease, while creating the space and time required for the healthcare services to augment their testing, tracing, and quarantining competences. All of the latter three responses having been shown to be an effective combination for reducing the impact and probability of occurrence of the disease. The cost of lockdowns to economies (most of which were quick to follow China’s lead) turned out to be high, however. And, because of this, some of the numbers by which output have dropped across economies since the year began have been unmatched since such numbers started being kept.

Predictably, confronted by these awful gross domestic product (GDP) numbers, and concerned about remediating their shrivelling economy, some state governments in the U.S. bought into the case for a rapid return to normalcy made by their federal government and begun reopening their economies. Of course, people were going to die. But what greater sacrifice could such folks make than succumb to the virus in the knowledge that their deaths will help strengthen their respective economies? In the uncomfortable contradiction forced on us by this pandemic, between economic growth and lives saved, these elected officials plumped for the former.

Yet, you do not have to scratch too far beneath this choice to reach the moral boundary that it so lightly skips over. For, the thing is, if there were a god of the economy, this argument would still be no more justified than was the case made by votaries of Moloch ― at whose behest, the Jews once sacrificed children. The people, on the other hand, against whom this unfortunate transaction goes, have gods aplenty. The Christian deity, interestingly, would leave His flock unattended in a bid to save a stray. Of the idols before which mankind prostrates himself, today, though, the secular one ― government ― is arguably the most important.

Organised as a mechanism for protecting the people, the debate about the moral space ― occupied by governments ― in which this goal is to be realised has been an unending one. Much of the dialogue around opening economies, even as the world tries to battle COVID-19, has taken place within the utilitarian corner of this space. According to this logic, the larger number of those who contract the virus do not present symptoms. And fatalities from those who are symptomatic disproportionately afflict communities with pre-existing health conditions, and the elderly.

In other words, the tension between lives and lucre presented by the decision on whether to lift lockdowns in order to boost economic activity or to keep restrictions on movement that save lives and depress domestic demand, appears easily resolved if we were to seek the greatest good for the greatest number. The death of a small segment of mankind will be more than compensated for in this case by the benefit to the larger number by thriving economies.

Unfortunately, to have the decision as to what the greatest good is in this case, made by those who would benefit from it, is immoral. Same way that slavery is immoral, even when slave populations never exceeded the numbers of slave owners, and thus the benefit to the larger number from maintaining slaves was greater than the loss to the small population of slaves. Were those most vulnerable to COVID-19, or already presenting with its symptoms at the decision making, the utilitarian argument will necessarily acquire a different hue.

Either way, there are no convincing arguments against the fact that mankind is made smaller by every death. And whereas each man dies but once, economies can always be fixed, given enough time.

About the Author: Uddin Ifeanyi is a journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

Source: Premium Times

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