Covid-19, Economics and Bioethics

Bioethics, in its essence, is multi-disciplinary. It involves medicine, philosophy, theology, political science, and supernumerary other scholarly fields. And, of course and, perhaps, unfortunately, economics. Bioethics is blessed, and plagued, by its confluence of academic influences, and operates within their inevitable, intersecting, conflicting, uncomfortable gray areas. The Covid-19 pandemic speaks to the bioethical implications that go beyond who gets ventilators and when do we get a vaccine to even more elemental questions. Can we survive the economic paralysis that comes from a quarantine designed to arrest or slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States? Was it “worth it” to force a government shutdown of many industries in an effort to keep our population as safe as possible….and, perhaps, forestall further economic devastation…and, even if so, what is our endgame?

I write this as a veterinarian, a bioethicist, a small business owner, a father of three high schoolers suddenly thrust into “e-learning,” and the son and son-in-law of octogenarians. If those seem conflicting interests, then they are indeed representative of just what a mess this pandemic finds our society. We aren’t unique but, in so many ways American, have managed to find ourselves the world leaders in Covid-19 deaths, infections, tests and are the economic “canary-in-the coal-mine” for the industrial world.

The Atlantic, hardly a shill for the Trump administration or its apologists, has a sober assessment, two months into the general national “quarantine” zeitgeist that has been our reality in most of America. The complex effects of the coronavirus on our economics are described in this piece, one that also looks at what those economic effects have on other nations and, yes, the mental and physical health of our own citizens. It isn’t pretty. Macroeconomics is a bioethics issue.

Americans have now been forced to face, and decide between, our competing ethics of safety (a biggie in contemporary society), personal liberty (autonomy, in ethical lingo, another biggie) and self-sacrifice for a greater civic good (mostly read about in vintage World War II texts, but bringing on a new significance). And it seems we can’t begin to reconcile them, so we just retreat into support of one of the first two, claiming the third as its moral anchor. As we are seeing, this is no way to orchestrate a response to a pandemic that has left (as of this writing) over 80,000 Americans dead and an economy that currently can only be measured by the Great Depression levels of unemployed, but really should only begin to be assessed the way we do tornado damage…when the sun comes up and the clouds lift.

There are no numbers to encourage us. Yet, reports tell us that there are available hospital beds and ventilators, and that the navy ships brought in to our urban “hot spots” to offer more space were (thankfully) never needed. We succeeded in “flattening the curve,” that goal that was always our fundamental one when we paralyzed our economy and society many weeks ago. So what is the goal now? Is it avoiding a new wave that will create a curve that needs flattening again? Is it a quick or gradual reversal of the paralysis of the economy that lets us eat out, shop in malls, have gatherings with friends, play sports and see marching bands perform, and worship in community again? Governors have played a primary role here, perhaps an illustration of the wisdom of federalism to some, the limitations of the same when dealing with a pandemic across fifty free borders to others. It is inescapably political in an election year…do you want to see people die or go bankrupt? That is our apparent binary choice, and our political polarization has already entrenched the position of each side.

I reinforce to my clients who are making decisions for my patients, their pets, as well as to my own children, should they be listening, that every decision we make has consequences, and virtually none makes everyone a winner. The Atlantic article mentions the profound economic devastation that comes to our health if we enter an economic abyss. Some of that is already realized. That bioethical decisions are inextricably economic should be painfully obvious to all. It has always been the “elephant in the room,” sometimes at a micro- and others at a macro-level. We have viewed economics as, at best, a stern taskmaster who wants to ruin a good thing and, at worst, the archenemy of bioethics. In the West at least, we have been blessed by wealth to make high-level bioethical decisions. The challenge of who gets dialysis was answered by “everyone,” because we found a way to pay for it without creating economic devastation. When that wealth erodes, we are on a different playing field. Covid-19 shows us what happens when a bioethical decision runs headlong into economics. Again, it isn’t pretty.

Fundamentally, we need to decide what human dignity and human flourishing look like in a modern society. Justice for all, and with particular attention paid to those at the margins, always dictate this. The margins we face in Covid-19 are, of course, the elderly, the immune-compromised, the chronically ill. But they are also those who struggle in good times to make financial ends meet and who are suddenly out of work weeks after the highest level of employment in recent history. Some are facing mental health and addiction crises. Global poverty, and its accompanying hunger and death, will rise. Whether one out of five or one out of ten, whether in North America or sub-Saharan Africa, we have a group of people at the margins. The number will inevitably widen as the storm damage is fully assessed. To fail to account for them in our public health decisions is inept and insensitive. To ignore the power of a disease caused by a novel virus for which no nation in the world has yet achieved “herd immunity” is no better.

Be careful how strongly you support either position. Those who lead, ultimately, are successful when they disappoint those who follow them equally. This is not a Solomonic baby-splitting, but the hard work of public policy and personal behavior. We will give up (and already have given up, to a great extent) some things that are excruciatingly painful losses. Our Western obsession with safety, with the quest for immortality that cannot be realized, for choosing death on our own terms and in our own time, has come under attack. Now we can be safer, but lose our prosperity, or remain wealthy but sacrifice many more thousands of our own. We can’t have both. Our public health decisions must recognize that national and global economics are bioethical, human flourishing, epidemiological decisions that cannot be ignored. A cavalier approach to loss of human life is ghastly, and an economy that fails means a health care system that fails.

March for Science

If anything can be gleaned from the early days of the new administration in Washington, it is that a lot of Americans appear eager to march. The sheer numbers of marches chronicled since the election and into the nascent days of the victors’ succession would impress John Philip Sousa. The newest entry is the “March for Science,” an event to be held on April 22nd, a day now also known as “Earth Day.”

The march, like virtually all of the marches, is a reflection on the new administration. “The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” So states the website, with rhetoric that heats up from there. Its organizers plan worldwide marches with a “Teach-in” along the National Mall in America’s apparent scientific capital, Washington, D.C. It would seem unlikely that this venue will protect it from partisanship.

It is, of course, ludicrous to believe that science is ever truly separated from politics. From before Newton to the Scopes trial, science has been linked to the political dialogue. In our age, science still carries great weight in any argument (perhaps second only to empathy), and politicians, corporations, and just about every one else will use science as needed to advance an agenda. And we should not think scientists are dispassionate about the work they do, or free of political impulses. And certainly federal funding of research, awarded broadly by politicians and specifically by government agencies, necessitates a tighter relationship than most scientists would have traditionally found comfortable.

I don’t want to be misconstrued as being overly critical of the concerns expressed in the call for the march. The principal issue with which the organizers are united is not particularly veiled. While this is not the forum, and a suburban small animal veterinarian is hardly the description of someone whose opinion on climate change should be sought, I do grieve the polarization on this issue that seems to fall along political lines. The left-versus-right divide would make some absolute enemies of the free market and others absolute enemies of science. We have lost the ability to have a nonpartisan discussion on this issue (or many scientific issues) in the public square, because to do so means we must accept an agenda. Whether you agree with it or not, the organizers of this march certainly have one, and it would not be fully embraced by many scientists (nor does some of it have much to do with science).

Beyond this, part of what I see missing in the aims of such a march is any reflection on what science can and cannot do. Science, at its core, ought to be a deeply humbling endeavor. Science uses empirical evidence to help show us how things work, from the cosmos to the quark. And sometimes new empirical evidence shows us that the earlier evidence was insufficient or outright wrong. Science tells us about the world around us and gives us tools to make new things possible, but cannot tell us if something is ethical. Bioethics emerged as a discipline, in large part, to evaluate and make judgments on the consequences of scientific discovery. Science is not itself a good or bad thing (though it can be done well or badly), and it cannot effectively determine either from within. Modernity taught us wrongly that science was its own arbiter, and we are not soon to recover.

I don’t know how to get all that on a placard, so I won’t find a way to attend the march. Marches don’t lend themselves to nuance. That’s a pity. I’d proudly march in celebration of scientific discovery that is ethical and recognizes its own limitations, its promise and its risks. I have spent twenty-five years in practice using science to try to bring health and happiness to my animal patients and their human companions. I often find it frustrating when a long-standing treatment is shown to be ineffective based on new scientific evidence. But I am compelled to respect that, and I change what I have done. Science is one of the greatest means for revelation that God has granted us. My faith in general, and my eschatology in particular, tell me that I have have profound responsibilities to care for the Earth and its inhabitants. The “March for Science” reminds me that agreement on the means of doing so remains supremely difficult.