In continuing the topic of death in recent posts, I want to present some statistical data and some historical information that can help make clear the dilemma we are facing as a nation and the world with our response to the coronavirus about its impact of humans lives through the impacts on “the economy.” My purpose is not to argue that we need to open the economy back up immediately or even by Easter as President Trump suggested, who I think is more motivated by the economic interests of the wealthy and big business, but that we need to recognize the growing costs of prolonged impacts on the economy and the impact it can and can have on human lives, especially those of the poorer and less stable, if we move into a three or four months hiatus in the life of our country.
Economic recession and depressions are no minor thing. They can dramatically change the course of life for the long run, long after “the economy” has gotten settled. Economic recessions and depressions are, to use a metaphor, sociological traumas that can create psychological traumas in people who are hardest hit. They can leave scars on people that can imapct their well-being and health for years to come. This includes mortality.
Let me present to you the case of the 2007-2009 economic recession, when peak unemployment hit 10%. Death rates did not rise in 2007 and 2008.1 Instead, death rates continued to decline as they had been since 1988. However, by 2009, the decline in death rates had stopped and, instead, death rates began to climb as it has done every year since then. Now these numbers are certainly complicated by the fact that it is by this time the largest generation, the baby boomers, had become more mortally frail with age. However, we see a similar pattern occur after the recession of 1981-1982, where peak unemployment exceeded 10%. From 1984-1988, mortality rates started to climb, after they had been going down since 1968. While economic downturns do not usually increase mortality immediately, there is reasons to consider that they do bear a long term cost on people through the trauma they can inflict upon the most vulnerable of the populations.
Now, one might look to the Great Depression and notice mortality rates stayed pretty constant in the years follow.2 However, the Great Depression came upon the heels of dramatic reductions in mortality, as improved living conditions, medicine, hospital care, etc. lead to a dramatic improving the span of life from the turn of the century. What did happen, however, is that the mortality rate following the Great Depression remained relatively constant for many years until the mid 1940s, despite the increase ability to take care of human lives. It was only after penicillin and antibiotics became widely used to treat bacterial infections in the 1940s did we witness a renewed decreased in death rates.
The point of this very brief foray into thanatology, US economic history, and medicine? That the “economy” is not code word for the rich that doesn’t have a very real impact on people’s lives. The “economy” is about people and their ability to provide what they need and want and economic downturns have a way of of appearing to dramatically alter death rates down the line. The “economy” is not just about stock markets and bank accounts, but about people’s livelihoods. If we as Christians are to be like Jesus’ instructs us with the parable of the shrewd servant who ended up using money in service of others, it behooves us to not simply reject the “economy” as idolat to mammon, but to shrewdly, yet also innocently (unlike the shrewd, unrighteous manage), think about how the economy serves people, including the economically vulnerable.
The choices we make as a nation today are not drawn between a objectively clear choice between good and evil. That is our sense of fear of death that leads us to oversimplify the problems our society is facing today. Simplification is good and necessary when a very concrete threat is right in front of you and you yourself must act immediately in that moment, but when understanding the threat in terms of the more abstract (coronavirus, COVID-19, etc.) than in terms of concrete experience (actually having the illness), our fear leads us to overlook and be unconcerned all the consequences of our actions that do not go towards addressing our specific fear. That is how the fear of death enslaves us, and our sense of ethics and morality becomes a way of rationalize our decisions in the face of death, rather than opening our eyes and ears to hear what our actions can do.
We should self-isolate and quarantine for now. No doubt. But we need to see the consequences are actions can have on the years to come also. We need to open our eyes and ears and be willing to face the challenge we are faced with, rather than morally self-assure ourselves of our moral superiority in the face of this threat we still do not really understand and that we can not control. Focus on life and all of life.