Every day the media report the number of new infections and deaths attributed to COVID-19, and many debate the closing or opening of schools, businesses and places of worship.
Is there a right answer? I don't know. The variables keep changing, and fighting COVID-19 is proving to be more challenging than anticipated. However, at the heart of the argument over the economy is an explosive question that is often ignored: "How much is a human life really worth?"
Put another way, "Do we save thousands of lives, or do we save the economy?"
The question of calculating a value on human life is not new. In the 1940s, the U.S. Air Force wanted to know how to cause the Soviet Union the most damage with a first-strike nuclear attack. Generals asked economists this question and received a solution that maximized the number of pilots killed and minimized the number of costly planes destroyed in battle. Thankfully, rational minds prevailed, and the plan was scrapped.
Western civilizations generally interpret the question of how much a human life is worth to be one of morality. As such, we are appalled at the bluntness of such a question and the suggestion that a human life can be reduced to dollars and cents.
Yet, with COVID-19 and other difficult challenges, we've allowed our morals to be subjugated to a cost-benefit analysis: "Who is essential and non-essential?" "Who must wear a mask, and who doesn't?"
Placing a value on human life permeates many debates. We argue over funding education and formulas that seem to favor certain demographics over others. We argue over health care and whether hospitals should be maintained in rural parts of the state. We argue over which roads are improved to address safety concerns or expanded to promote economic growth.
We will always have limited financial resources. We must choose what to fund and promote. We can listen to economists, or we can listen to morality that tells us we cannot and must not favor one demographic over another simply because of economics or expediency. Every person has the right to be equally protected and valued.
During my tenure as the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, we had limited federal dollars to provide temporary assistance to needy families. Our choice: Do we give money to people and programs we like, or do we support programs that further our mission and help people in need the state?
The answer was simple: We moved from how things had always been done to how they should be done—not driven by economics, but by principles.
We used a trauma-informed approach in our decision making. An economic focus, instead of a trauma-informed focus, is like condescendingly asking someone, "What's wrong with you, and why are you questioning how I live my life?" It presupposes the individual or situation is a financial burden or an imposition on us.
Western society tends to believe a person simply needs to work hard, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and be thankful they live in the greatest country in the world. If success does not follow, it's their own fault. If they don't have food or shelter, they should have worked harder.
We need a new perspective on how the world should work and not how it usually works. We need to understand that as we have become more focused on achieving greater economic success, more people across all demographics have suffered due to broken promises, damaged relationships and fractured lives. We need a paradigm shift from "What's wrong with you?" to "What has happened to you, and how can I help?" Otherwise, whether we intend it or not, we will place economics over equality; materiality over morality.
The questions should not be, "How much does it cost to reduce the physical, emotional or sexual abuse?" or "How much does it cost to address mental-health concerns, re-entry after incarceration or substance-abuse disorder?"
The questions should be, "Do we have a moral obligation to help people regardless of demographics or their economic contribution to society?" and "Can we empower the next generation of children to succeed?" The answer to both is a resounding "Yes!"
Our country was founded on the idea that all people are created equal. However, we know that in practice that principle has been measured and found wanting. In the December 2018 issue of Child Abuse and Neglect, we learned the cost of childhood maltreatment alone was estimated to cost $401 billion a year in employer losses and increased costs in health care, education, child welfare and corrections.
When the costs associated with such issues as poverty, racism, addiction, violence and abuse are calculated, it is easy to see the focus has been on profits, not people. Profits and people are not mutually exclusive. That's a false dichotomy. The founding principle of equality for all is sound. It is the practice of equity that needs work.
Leadership, particularly during a pandemic, begins with relying on strong morals, ethics and virtues, even when those decisions are unpopular or bring rebuke from friends. How much is a human life really worth? The answer begins with taking a trauma-informed approach that values all people and their experiences over power, politics and economics.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the JFP.