Thinking Charitably about COVID-19 and the Economy

Flatten the Curve, or Restart the Economy?

I’m sure you’ve heard that a main point of contention surrounding social distancing is whether we ought to continue to stay home or not. Many, many scientists, medical professionals, and public policy professionals have indicated that we need to social distance for a long time to prevent us from hitting the max death predictions in various models. Here are some good overviews of this point of view:

The crisis is complex, but the goal is simple: reduce how many people that get infected all at once to “flatten the curve.” I.e., reduce how many people need critical care all at the same time so that we don’t run out of hospital beds, medical staff, and medical equipment (primarily ventilators, since this disease overwhelmingly affects the lungs).

Naturally, the social distancing we’re implementing has led to heavy negative economic impacts – by necessity. As people stop going to work, stop venturing out unnecessarily, and stop gathering with others, this reduces many people’s ability to make money as businesses are losing customers. And because of this we’re already starting to get some calls for backpedaling on extreme social distancing. My good friend Chad Graham (pastor by trade, economist at heart) shares these concerns. Here are some good articles reflecting these concerns:

In the long run, these authors argue, extreme social distancing will have a worse effect on the death toll (and on life in general) than if we were to loosen social distancing measures now (or much sooner than many medical experts are calling for). In other words, the cure is worse than the disease.

Now, this may very well be true. I happen to disagree, because I think the movement of people back into public life is much more complex than simply letting those who are not vulnerable go to work while isolating those who are vulnerable. I myself am likely not vulnerable (I’m 30, I have no underlying health conditions, I am not obese, etc., etc.). But my daughter, an otherwise healthy child, suffers from asthma-like symptoms — primarily in the fall and spring when allergic reactions to pollen and particulate matter are at their highest. So what do we do with someone like me? What happens if I am exposed, show little to no symptoms, but later expose my daughter to a disease that could kill her? And that’s just a simple case. There are other people I could come into contact with that think they are not at risk, but in fact are.

How to Think Charitably

This isn’t even the point of why I’m writing. My main point is that I’m very concerned with the way I’m seeing these conversations play out online. Some are mischaracterizing those who support extreme social distancing as irrational, or as if they are pursuing this in bad faith as a way of removing Trump from office. On the other hand, I’ve seen people characterize those who want the economy to restart as heartless capitalists, or as “throwing a tantrum” so we can go back to normal (really, I saw someone say this on Facebook).

In his book, How to Think, Alan Jacobs argues that we have lost the ability to think charitably, and gives some guidelines for how we might start to regain this critical skill in the Internet Age. At the end of the book, he gives a “Thinking Person’s Checklist.” One of his guidelines is, “Try to describe others’ positions in the language they use…” In other words, when you reiterate someone else’s argument, represent it both fairly and with their strongest and best arguments.

That’s absolutely not what’s happening when we say someone is throwing a temper tantrum if they bring up questions about whether halting the economy is the best move forward when dealing with a global pandemic. Emotions are high, and the stakes are high. But if we cannot represent another person’s point of view fairly, we’re attempting to win policy arguments via social pressure and strong-arming rather than rational, clear debate. This reveals an unwillingness to deal honestly with facts and willingly reevaluate our assumptions and biases.

That is not to say I agree with my friend Chad. I’m personally willing to take the chance on extreme social distancing, because it seems to me that we have relatively more reliable data about the likelihood of a high death rate from COVID-19 deaths over the data on deaths from economic instability. But I also think that, at the bottom of things, Chad and I share the same concerns: we want as few deaths, for as little economic shock as possible. We simply disagree on how to get there. And I trust that his motivation for restarting the economy are noble in nature — not simply because he idolizes capitalism.

Leave a Reply