Proponents of the government’s heavy-handed measures to curb the spread of coronavirus (as I explained in my previous post, I prefer not to legitimize the term “lockdown”) preach the compelling need to save lives. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein’s rhetoric as he pushed the latest plan last week was typical: “There is no choice but to impose a lockdown… It’s a matter of life and death.” On the other side of the debate are those decrying the economy-crushing consequences of the measures. As Finance Minister Israel Katz put it, “Israel’s economic resilience is part of its national resilience – it must be protected too.”
In media reports – and, correspondingly, in the minds of many citizens – these two concerns are commonly juxtaposed as reflecting two conflicting priorities: saving lives or saving Israel’s economy. The problem is that the back-and-forth debate creates a false dichotomy. Life is sacrosant above all else, so how could anything else even factor into the equation? Because when it comes down to it, the economy is about money, right? And who among us values money over life itself? I’m sure we can all agree that preventing the deaths of thousands of Israelis would be worth the country’s falling a few places on global economic rankings or sacrificing a couple of years of prosperity.
Like kids (and even some adults) who think of ATMs as magic money machines, spontaneously spitting out and swallowing bank notes, too many corona-centric politicians and pundits act as if the economy is a mechanistic entity six degrees removed from everyday life. As my son says, “Can’t the government just print more money?” In reality, the repeated blows the government has dealt to Israel’s economy are every bit as harmful to the enterprise of life as the viral pestilence.
The ability to earn a living wage, to pay for a home, food, clothing, our children’s needs and some of their wants, all the things that sustain life and some that infuse it with meaning; the mental and psychological stress that takes hold when any of the aforementioned things are in doubt or disappear altogether, which correlates directly with myriad long-term health problems; the demise of businesses big and small which provide livelihoods for owners, investors, and employees from cleaning crews to advanced-degreed engineers; anxiety, depression, and despair due to loss of income and dignity and sometimes the means for survival; the resulting rise in suicides, substance abuse, self-harm, domestic abuse, malnutrition, obesity, and eating disorders among adults and children… All these fall under the impersonal heading of “the economy.”
These “soft mortalities” incubate for much longer than 14 days. They will play out over months and years and be difficult to fully quantify. So let’s not let the cause of saving Israel’s economy be treated as a distant second to the fight against coronavirus. To borrow a common refrain from the shutdown camp, this too is a matter of life of death.