“NO BLOOD FOR OIL, man!”
That’s what the guitar player said as we listened to the news on the radio, trundling down the 405 Freeway in a panel truck. It was 1990, the U.S. was fixing to boot Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and I was serving as a roadie for a 1950s-themed rock-n-roll band heading southbound from Los Angeles for a corporate gig at a posh hotel on the waterfront in San Diego.
The guitar player was dead set against getting into what looked fair to be a full-scale shooting war — for any reason, most especially for the filthy lucre that oil represents.
I was still in my 20s then and hadn’t yet developed the sense to avoid getting into arguments with fools while stuck in the cab of a truck on a three-hour drive on an L.A. Freeway. So I told him that was the stupidest slogan ever committed to bumper-stickers and t‑shirts.
“Might as well say, ‘NO BLOOD FOR FOOD!’ or ‘NO BLOOD FOR WATER!’”
The connection was a bit beyond the guitar player. Not because he was stupid, but because his worldview and sense of identity wouldn’t let him link the resource to the food chain — or his ability to drive for three hours to play “Johnny B. Goode” for a bunch of corporate movers-and-shakers who had flown in from all over the country to get drunk and do the bump-and-grind with their co-workers (or their boss).
Nor could he grasp that nobody WANTED Americans to bleed and die for Kuwaiti oil — but ceding control of the Arabian Gulf and a huge percentage of its oil production to a murderous megalomaniac (yeah, I know, recently OUR murderous megalomaniac) wasn’t an acceptable outcome. Because our economic lifeblood really is our economic lifeblood.
I had a dream about that long-ago argument early Monday morning. Because I still feel like I’m in the lists, tilting at the near-impervious shields of people who consider the notion that economic life demands some level of risk and sacrifice a blasphemy against the sanctity of human life. As though life can be decoupled from making a living.
I am at pains to make myself clear here: I take this virus very seriously. I do not want to get it; I dread the very thought of my loved ones getting sick; and I understand the necessity of “flattening the curve” to stave off a collapse of red-zone health care systems. The world is in a terrible fix, with no good or easy options. But we must recognize that the social treatment for this pandemic is toxic — and at some point the cure will be worse than the illness.
For, make no mistake, the economic fallout of this pandemic will blight and shorten lives as surely — though less dramatically — as shredded lungs. And the longer the near-shutdown continues, the deeper and more pervasive the damage will be.
We in the West have lost our understanding of the connection between livelihood and life. We are so incomprehensibly wealthy and have been so secure for so long in our wealth and comfort, that we no longer recognize the wolf when he comes to the door.
The wolf is about to make his presence known.
At some point — and soon — we are going to have to move past this moment’s stasis. And that movement will entail risk and sacrifice. Some will die that others may live.
World Health Organization (WHO) special envoy David Nabarro said last Sunday:
“We think it is going to be a virus that stalks the human race for quite a long time to come until we can all have a vaccine that will protect us and that there will be small outbreaks that will emerge sporadically and they will break through our defenses.”
And what if we can’t develop a vaccine in short order? That’s a real possibility, one that our pill-for-every-ill mindset can scarcely comprehend and instinctively recoils against. Coronaviruses are not easy to vaccinate against.
Indian economist Sanjeev Sabhlok wrote in The Times of India on April 11:
“Australian National University academic Peter Collignon has confirmed to me that: ‘I don’t think we can assume with any certainty we will get a safe and effective vaccine for all. We haven’t for a number of other infections eg. HIV, Hep C, Dengue, RSV despite trying very hard.’
“…Virtually everyone who knows about coronaviruses knows that a vaccine is a moonshot.”
That’s a kick in the nuts to the hope that “this too shall pass.” We’re going to have to learn to live with COVID-19.
Living with COVID-19 is probably going to have to look a lot like the so-called Swedish model.
“Sweden is blessed to have one of the brightest officials in the world at its helm, Anders Tegnell. He has explained to the people of Sweden that there is no easy answer to this problem. They have understood that they have to take responsibility for themselves and their own families. The elderly have to be protected by each family. There is only so much that any government can do.”
It’s important to recognize that the Swedish model isn’t a fix; it’s not really even a “better way.” A lot of health experts think it’s a dangerous gamble. The Swedes are simply trying to choose a least-bad option that is sustainable. They are gambling by taking this approach from the outset — but all of us have to get to that point some time.
We will not return quickly to pre-COVID normal — not until herd immunity reduces its virulence and we have a testing program that can actually get a handle on how pervasive the illness actually is. We must continue to isolate and protect the vulnerable to the degree possible. We must adapt our way of living and take ongoing personal precautions, including modifying social interaction.
But we must venture forth and live and work again.
Western culture has become so imbued with the myth and the lie of zero-defect and absolute safety that it will require a massive cultural shift to accept that we actually must live with risk and danger. The puerile notion that any measure is morally imperative “if it saves just one life” will break down in the face of a brutal reeducation in what is actually feasible in a world of limited resources.
“Most nations are behaving like ostriches with their head buried in sand – with febrile dreams about vaccines and treatments. They want to keep their society in suspended animation while reducing the loss of life from the virus. They are oblivious to the incomprehensible cost their society will pay for indefinite lockdowns. Steve Kates, an economist I admire, has estimated that the cost to society of saving a life in extreme, extended lockdowns could be in the range of $300 million. Good luck to Western nations with that.”
And, of course, Sabhlok recognizes that his own nation can’t even pretend to think that such a commitment is possible. Those who are living closer to the bone than Westerners have lived for generations understand something that we must re-learn. Some things can’t be fixed; the best we can do is mitigate — and learn to live again, as our ancestors did, in the valley of the shadow of death.