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GREG HARTON: Do Americans have a limit on sacrifice?

by Greg Harton | March 29, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

Do Americans have enough patience to save lives?

Does that patience run out if it comes at a high economic cost?

The adequacy of the response to the aggressively spreading covid-19 is constantly on the minds of a lot of Americans, and indeed people all over the world. Have we gone too far or not far enough?

Your answer to that could depend on a lot of factors: Are you 70 or 80 years old, or do you love someone who is? Do you live in New York City or Hindsville, Ark. (Pop. about 70)? Are you in a job that's proving so far to be virus-proof or were you one of the first to face a lack of employment? Do you own a business with its future hanging in a precarious balance? Are you a senior in college or high school who has seen the rights of passage associated with those educational achievements evaporate? Are you a health care worker who is forced to live apart from family because of the dangers of spreading the coronavirus? Are you a retiree who has watched income-producing investments shrink dramatically?

Covid-19 has put people in intensive care, some clinging to life, others succumbing. It's also in the process of putting huge swaths of our economy on life support, destroying whatever threadbare safety net might have existed for those whose lives were close to the financial edge.

So, if you were the governor or the president, how would you tackle it?

It's all about risk: How much risk are Americans willing to take to give our economy a chance to recover more quickly? Or how much of our livelihoods are we willing to gamble to starve the virus of hosts and give our health care systems at least a chance to avoid being overwhelmed?

Lots of questions and few answers, at least not easy ones. They're complicated by the fact those calling for embracing a higher level of risk in the response to the virus are not the ones such risks might adversely affect.

There are people who believe the economic turbulence rippling across the nation is an unnecessary result of an overreaction. I've heard or read some of their responses, seemingly eager to accept the "sacrifice" of older Americans in the name of some economic stability.

Andrew Cuomo, New York's governor, has heard from those folks, too, as he navigates the explosive number of cases in and around New York City. He explained the logic: If covid-19 would kill only 1 or 2 percent of populations, and they're old and sick anyway, why disrupt the nation's economy in a way that may take far, far longer from which to recover than the spread of the virus.

"We're not willing to sacrifice that 1 or 2 percent," Cuomo said last week at a news conference. "We're not willing to do that. That is not who we are; it's not what we are. It's not what we believe. We are going to fight every way we can to save every life that we can, because that's, I think, what it means to be an American."

Maybe. I'd like to think we're a "leave no one behind" kind of nation. But I've seen and heard a lot of comments that reflect division on that question. Finding the right balance between the economists and the physicians is where we most need inspired leadership.

Every time I think about what numbers we're willing to sacrifice to protect our economic future, my mind drifts -- the generic, anonymous people who make up the percentages eventually come into focus. They look like people I love -- my kids, my wife, my parents, folks I work with and go to church with. How much are their lives worth?

My calculator doesn't go that high.

Commentary on 03/29/2020

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