Why ideas generated by fear are always bad ideas
I read an article today on Medium that was inevitably about the current coronavirus scare. As such, it was merely following the norm of single-issue elaboration which, of course, I’m also doing here.
The article basically argued that any economic hardship and all social disruption is absolutely worth it in order to spare human lives. Who cares about money when lives are at stake?
If we don’t think about it at all, this seems a reasonable proposition.
But if we do stop for a moment to think about it, we may discover that it’s naïve and in fact deeply wrong in many ways.
To see why, let’s examine the impact that would happen if we took this naïve perspective and applied it to all kinds of risk.
As mortality rates for covid-19 vary wildly by country, from as little as 0.2% risk to as high as 3.8% risk, let’s play Devil’s Advocate and assume that the risk is actually higher at 4%. If our citizens have a lifetime risk of dying from covid-19 that’s as high as 4% then of course we should shut down the world in order to save lives, even if those lives “saved” are the very old and the sick who’ll die anyway a few weeks or months later, virus or no virus. Because in the end, we all die. But we’ll ignore this unpleasant fact and focus instead on “saving” lives. Because a 4% risk is absolutely intolerable.
But if a 4% lifetime risk of death from something is intolerable, then we need to apply this metric to all kinds of risk. If we want to be safe, it would make no sense to spend trillions to reduce one kind of risk but leave ourselves exposed to similar or worse risks, would it? That would be like padding the walls and floors of our homes so we don’t injure ourselves from an accidental fall but then driving around in cars that have no brakes.
If we are going to address one significant risk, it’s only logical that we should address all risks in a similar way. Because life is life, right? If life is precious beyond any monetary value and beyond any inconvenience, then the nature of the risk is irrelevant. What matters is protecting lives.
Which means we must immediately ban, on a permanent basis, all motor vehicles electric, hybrid, or traditional. Because the average global lifetime risk of being killed in an automobile accident is 8%. This is twice the (inflated) lifetime risk we settled on for covid-19 and, in reality, more like three times the actual (non-inflated) risk. Surely what we need is a mass media sensationalist campaign that every day (or, better, every hour) publishes the numbers of people worldwide who’ve been killed in auto accidents. We should have a country-by-country breakdown. We should have political leaders solemnly telling us that in order to stem the horrific tsunami of auto-related deaths we’re all banned from using our vehicles forever.
We don’t do this, of course, because the mass media became powerless to sensationalize auto accident deaths as we all began buying vehicles for ourselves. The first few deaths were indeed highly publicized and people were indeed whipped into panic and hysteria by the reporting that occurred when the first vehicles took to the roads. Automobiles were limited to the pace of a man walking ahead, carrying a bright red flag to warn others of the approach of potential death.
But after a while the sensationalism of automobiles waned and the mass media moved on to a new topic. Even when the lifetime risk of death by auto accident was much higher than 8% (because of poor lighting, poor brakes, no seatbelts, etc.) we accepted this risk in return for the benefits we gained from being able to drive automobiles.
Today we’re destroying the benefits we gain from open borders and free movement. Supply chains are breaking down, which will lead to empty shelves even if people stop panic-buying. Hundreds of millions of real people, people who are just like you and me, have lost their jobs and are in desperate straits. Many will lose the roof over their heads, and many are going hungry right now.
While there may be band-aid measures in rich Western countries, the nations hardest-hit by our present actions are among the poorest in the world. Although Western mass media won’t report it, being far too busy reporting on celebrity coronavirus tweets, hundreds of thousands of people will literally starve.
And guess what? While we sit gawping at Netflix in the comfort of our homes, millions will go hungry and thus their immune systems will be compromised and thus they will die in greater numbers from the virus, and from many other illnesses, than we will.
Is this a moral posture? Is this “saving lives at any cost?”
In the rich and self-indulgent West we’ve often sought to benefit at the terrible expense of those who are poorer than we are. We exploited vast swathes of the planet under colonialism and from the 1960s the USA has run a quasi-empire doing precisely the same thing elsewhere in the name of “wholesome” capitalism. But none of this is saving lives; usually quite the reverse.
So our reactions to covid-19 are imposing enormous costs on those who can least afford to bear them, under the guise of “saving lives.” Which is really: sacrificing the poor and obscure in order that we in the pampered West can feel slightly less fearful.
Which is not at all “doing whatever it takes because human life is paramount.”
So when we talk about “doing whatever it takes, whatever the cost” it might be a really good idea to remember that much of the “cost” is being born by those least able to withstand the impact of our self-generated hysteria.
When we grow up, ideally we discover life isn’t as simple as portrayed in the storybooks we read as children. We discover that we have to balance priorities. We discover that there are never infinite resources and never infinite amounts of time. We learn that we have to arrive at “good enough” solutions and make adjustments as things change. When we grow up, we discover that focusing on just one thing means many other things may go very wrong very quickly.
Life is about navigating a great many challenges. There is never, ever, the luxury of pretending one thing alone is all that matters in the world.
But today we’ve reverted to infancy because we’ve been terrified by a mass media reliant on sensationalism in order to boost viewing figures that in turn increases the value of ad slots and, in some countries, ensures continuing government subsidies. Our brains have shut down under blind fear and we’re fixating on a single issue, all day and every day. We’re trying to self-comfort not by sucking on our thumbs but by embracing a range of measures that have terrible consequences for hundreds of millions of people around the planet.
We’re pretending that we can “save” Western lives (the lives of those who would be dead within a year or two anyway) by sacrificing hundreds of millions who are nicely tucked away beyond our consciousness and therefore don’t count.
This is not only naïve but deeply wrong.
If only we could stop panicking for a few seconds and stop gawping at media reports of death that lack all context and serve merely to increase mass hysteria, we might start to think about more coherent and helpful ways to respond to this current challenge.
Sadly we’re most likely to keep on panicking, pulling the world down onto our heads through misguided actions performed under the influence of blind fear inculcated by an irresponsible mass media and exacerbated by foolish and simple-minded politicians.
If we’re concerned about adversely impacting our health care systems, we need to remember that half of all spending on healthcare today is the result of us making atrocious lifestyle choices and becoming fat and flabby, resulting in a wide range of ailments that eventually cause premature death.
We can’t just focus on today’s sensationalized virus. We really must ban all automobiles, all tobacco products, all alcohol products, all junk food, all sugar, and stop generating electricity from carbon-based sources. Right now, and forever.
Because all these things create much higher lifetime risks of premature death than covid-19 ever will.