Death tolls don’t capture the scale of the suffering.
April 10, 2020
I have claustrophobia, a trait I share with George Washington. The former president was so afraid of being buried alive, he insisted on lying in state at Mount Vernon for three days before being entombed. A sailing man, I’ve pictured myself tripping overboard unseen and sinking after a fruitless struggle. I am not at all like Melville’s shipwrecked seamen, resolutely facing the inevitable by swimming down to their watery graves.
Nobody wants to die, but I sure don’t want to die of Wuhan coronavirus. I don’t want to drown as fluid builds up in my lungs. I don’t want the air sacs in my lungs to turn to stone, leaving them unable to inflate and me, therefore, unable to breathe.
Looking only at the numbers, weighing various national death rates against “normal” rates and calculating whether the cost of mitigation is worth the benefit, it’s possible to miss this simple human reality: Covid-19 is a horrible disease. That’s true for those who survive it as well as for those it kills.
Unlike the pneumonia that flu can give the elderly, this virus is hardly “the old man’s friend,” a gentle way to shuffle off this mortal coil. It is gruesome, live or die.
CNN’s Chris Cuomo has described his own fevered nights of dragon-ridden hallucinations. Even the visibly frail Prince of Wales, recovering from what he deprecates as a mild case, allows that it was a “distressing” experience. A friend of my son’s, now recovering, says firmly, “This isn’t the flu.”
Doctors and nurses have acknowledged their fear and sorrow as they attend the dying. Health-care workers are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task before them and the sea of suffering that surrounds them. Patients die alone; family visitors aren’t allowed. Then there is the sheer terror of catching the bug and passing it to family and friends.
Yes, I remember W.H. Auden on the wise perspective with which the Old Masters viewed inevitable human suffering. A tiny Icarus plummets from the top corner of a painting while the plowman in the foreground goes about the real work of mankind, wresting a living from the hard earth. And, as mass suffering goes, this pandemic is hardly the Holocaust. Still, suffering is suffering.
That’s the term absent from the cost-benefit analyses of pandemic mitigation. There’s a bloodlessness in them reminiscent of Macbeth’s dismissal of his wife’s death with the callous remark that, if not then, “she should have died hereafter” anyway. We all owe nature a debt, but there are better and worse ways of paying it.
What struck me in one of President Trump’s recent news briefings was how this reality had dawned on him and supercharged his response to the crisis. He talked about that forklift loading corpses into a refrigerated tractor trailer. And he recognized it was happening not just at any hospital, but at Elmhurst Hospital, near where he grew up in New York’s borough of Queens. In the body bags were people like the people he knew, real people whose lives had been harshly crushed. It was then that the administration’s slightly scattered effort to contain the pandemic finally snapped into focus.
Of course the economic costs of mitigation will be huge and will entail real suffering too. But let us keep all this in the right perspective—the human perspective.
Mr. Magnet, a National Humanities Medalist, is author of “Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution” and “The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817.”
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