A test of common sense, civility and courage

The harm to our economies and our way of life because of the over-reaction to the Corona Virus is discussed today by Henry Ergas in The Australian: Coronavirus: It will be unhealthy to ignore the cost of all this.

While the response of federal and state governments to the spread of COVID-19 is understandable, there must be a danger of going too far.

To say that is certainly not to recommend an attitude of benign neglect. Nor is it to ignore the fact these are decisions being taken in the depths of uncertainty, where risks are hard to measure and errors could lead to disaster.

But it is no less a fact that some 430 people die in this country every day, so that since the beginning of the year there have been almost 37,000 deaths, of which 12 are due to the coronavirus.

And it is also a fact that, every day, decision-makers around Australia take decisions that balance life and death: not merely by determining how much we should spend on public health but also by assessing whether to spend taxpayers’ funds on making roads safer, reducing the risk of fires or strengthening the emergency services.

Inevitably, those decisions involve trade-offs: they require us to assess how much we are willing to give up so as to prevent a person dying sooner than they otherwise would.

He puts his finger right on the problem, that every life matters and if we can save but one life, etc etc etc.

It is undoubtedly true that decisions that involve balancing lives and costs are far easier to take when the life at issue is not likely to be your own. It is one thing to think in terms of trade-offs when those who will be affected are anonymous draws from a large population and quite another when it is a matter of family and friends.

But that is precisely why we so often delegate these decisions to others, from the physicians who assess whether it is worth undertaking a procedure on a grievously ill patient to the institutions that select, out of the many who desperately need them, the few who will receive donated organs.

These are tragic choices, and we know that they will be better taken at a distance, dispassionately weighing the consequences.

He finishes with this:

This crisis is … a test of common sense, civility and courage: the common sense to avoid taking decisions that we may regret for decades to come; the civility, in the term’s old meaning of “civil righteousness”, to be mindful of what we owe each other and prudent before inflicting costs on people who will struggle to bear them; and most of all, the courage to calmly confront, and ultimately defeat, an enemy who, as the Treasurer put it, flies no flag and has no face.

That enemy is deadly enough. It would be a disgrace if we made the harm it wreaks even greater than it needs to be.

Whenever this panic comes to an end and we return to something like normal, this will be remembered as a very odd episode in our history, along the lines, I believe, with the Salem Witch Trials from the supposed Dark Ages of our past.

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