Covid-19 and misfortune

The Covid pandemic is a great misfortune.

Misfortune is no one’s fault – no human being’s fault that is – it is the will of God, or fate, or chance, or nature. No one person or group can prevent all misfortune. Asteroids, floods, plagues, pandemics, tornados, famines, are all examples. Even when a misfortune (like an oil spoil, a war, a breaking levy) is partially caused by human error, it is also partially caused by factors outside our control.

We cannot decide not to suffer misfortune. We must all suffer misfortune.

We cannot decide not to die, eventually. We must all die, eventually.

There are some misfortunes that are “pincers”, dilemmas that press in on us from both sides. Sometimes we are between a rock and a hard place.

In the present misfortune, consider the facts:

Everyone has a level of wealth: everyone has a livelihood, be they workers, business owners, investors, and those who live on support from others. The first category, the one who works for a living, depend on their job for livelihood. No job, living.

The second category: Everyone who works for someone else works for a business owner, and business owners depend on their employees and buyers and suppliers for livelihood. No businesses, no living (and no jobs).

The third category: investor. Everyone who lives off their investments depends on the success of those investments, be they loans or real estate or stocks or what have you.

The fourth category: those living on support. And everyone who lives on support from others depends on the others being able to support – the government cannot provide programs like unemployment, disability, SNAP, HUD housing, and a thousand others without tax money. Non-profits (including many hospitals) cannot provide charity without charitable donations from workers, business owners, investors and government grants funded by tax money.

In other words, the money circulating through the economy comes from all and to all. If the economy collapses, then all of us will suffer various permutations of poverty: the government and public sectors, the private sector, the non-profit sector, individuals, families, employees, business owners, and investors.

At the same time, everyone has a level of health: whether we are young, middle-aged, or old, and weather we are extremely healthy and strong, average, or weak, sick, and vulnerable. We are all vulnerable to injury, crime, sickness, and eventual death. This is always true, no matter how healthy we may be, for aging is (eventually) the ultimate killer. The Covid crisis puts our mortality front and center of our consciousness, and arouses our very human fear of mortality.

As the virus spreads, it continues to cause suffering and death. As the virus spreads, it continues to cause suffering in the hearts and lives of those who have lost loved ones or who are caring for loved ones. As the virus spreads, news of the suffering and death of others causes even the unaffected anxiety.

The “pincer” here is that we in some cases we are presented with an intolerable dilemma: we can either take courses of action that will cause more poverty, suffering, death, and anxiety or the alternatives which will cause more sickness, suffering, death, and anxiety.

So let’s not pretend that any course of action is the cause of misfortune, nor that any course of action will prevent misfortune.

Let’s take a microcosm example: when shopping for carseats for my first child, we were met with many options in terms of cost and safety. In a very real way, we were deciding how much we could afford to spend (as poor graduate students) and how much risk of death we could tolerate. Imagining losing our child in a car accident because we could have bought a more expensive (and presumably sturdier) carseat is a stomach-emptying type of image. And yet there were economic limits to what we could afford. We struck a balance and fared forward.

We all make these kinds of calls every day. If you don’t have a fire extinguisher in every room in your house, you are proportionally more likely to lose your house (and perhaps your life) in a fire. If you don’t have 1mil+ in life insurance on your life to protect your family, perhaps because you can’t afford it, then you are proportionally risking your family’s safety and health. But if you do buy fire extinguishers (which expire regularly) then there will be a financial cost that could go elsewhere; if you do buy millions in life insurance that money won’t be going elsewhere.

My sick father, when he came down with pancreatic cancer, had to decide how much of his retirement nest egg to spend on treatments. The longer he lived, the more of that money he would use to live – but the more he spent, the less he could pass on to his kids. Thankfully, much of his treatment was covered by tax-funded health insurance he had paid into his whole life. But the dilemma was still there? Increase chances of survival a small amount at the cost of my entire life savings? Not worth it. Increase chances of survival a large amount at the cost of a tiny portion of my life savings? Easy call. But most cases are not that simple.

With the Covid misfortune, there is no simple solution. The way forward for us (from what I am reading and thinking) seems to be a multifaceted approach: increase supply of ventilators and masks and other life-saving supplies, increase isolation and social distancing of the vulnerable, increase testing and scientific innovation for vaccines, treatments, cures, increase economic activity of those who are either low-risk enough to brave exposure or risk-tolerant enough venture forth, so long as they can avoid exposing others who are higher risk.

So what can we do?

  1. Take calculated risks, knowing that we may guess but do not know with certainty the full-impact of our risks to our health and wealth. Trust experts and our own intuition; these are social and personal decisions at the same time and neither expert nor personal opinion automatically trumps the other.

  2. Stay calm. Accept with a kind of Stoic dispassion that death comes to us all and that we must brave it – and some of us indeed hope for something after this life that is even better than this life.

  3. Don’t judge. We most emphatically cannot judge or blame those who are more or less venturesome than ourselves as reckless or cowardly, respectively. Rather, as a whole society we must make our bets with death and poverty and hope for the best, knowing that in the end there is no winning strategy except for hope in the almighty God.