The Johns Hopkins University coronavirus map and case data as of Jan. 5, 2021.

America has done an amazingly bad job dealing with the pandemic. There’s a strange sort of vertigo one feels upon hearing that in South Korea they’re enacting new restrictions because there are a thousand new cases in a day, while we clock a million a week.

What alarms me is that we seem to be accepting the carnage. Thousands die daily, and we still eat at restaurants, fly on airplanes, carry on and spread the virus.

This is hardly the worst imaginable pandemic, and this one could get way worse– way deadlier– if it mutates the wrong way. There may come a time when we really have to devote the society’s full resources to protecting human lives in order to prevent deaths in the millions or tens of millions.

With that in mind, I urge you, gentle reader, to imagine a very different approach, one I call essentialist.

Essentialist Manifesto

  1. Human lives are more important than money.
  2. Human lives require food, shelter, and medical care, and transportation as required to meet those essential needs. In time of crisis, i.e. the ongoing loss of huge numbers of human lives, these essential needs are the only things society and government should focus on.
  3. Human lives are more important than jobs. Since “the economy” is nothing more than an agglomeration of jobs, human lives are more important than “the economy.”

In a pandemic, some jobs are bad for public health. Eating in restaurants, working out in gyms, flying on airplanes, and shopping for inessential items in stores all spread the virus. We have watched the caseload and death-toll explode as commerce resumes.

  1. The U.S. is well-positioned to generate food, shelter, medical care, and the transportation needed to access these essentials. The U.S. is also well-positioned to pay for them, to the extent that individuals are unable. We spend huge sums on inessential and even contraindicated items– tens of billions to bail airlines out, for instance. If we take an essentialist approach, there is an enormous amount of money that could be re-directed.

Also, the U.S. is well positioned to simply create money out of thin air; we do it with some regularity. We did it to bail out Wall Street and the auto industry and we can do it to keep people safe and fed at home in time of high-mortality crisis. Money is something of an abstraction, after all, whereas the difference between a person and a corpse is real and irreversible.

Plainly, our society/government does not recognize the current pandemic as anything that calls for an essentialist approach. The way we’re approaching it, the essential thing is apparently “the economy.” We fret about restaurants closing as if people would starve if they had to cook their own food. Meantime, some people may actually starve, or almost starve, because they don’t have food to cook or a place to cook it, and the government/society is busy protecting jobs rather than human beings.

Perhaps the national calculus would be different if the demographic hardest hit by the coronavirus was well-to-do people who work in government. Be that as it may, it would be a good thing if people tried to open their minds to the possibility that at some point we will really have to focus on the true essentials– the biological necessities of human life– and let the rest of it go if we are to avoid something truly catastrophic.

COVID-19 has already killed one American in a thousand; the plague killed about one in three in Europe. I wonder what the fraction is that would make us consider an essentialist approach.

Eric W. Kuhn lives in Middletown.

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