Every day the media reports the number of new infections and deaths attributed to COVID-19.
And every day the numbers are used by the major media outlets to argue for or against the closing or opening of schools, businesses, and places of worship.
Is there a right answer? I don’t know. In fact, I don’t think anyone really knows. The variables keep changing and fighting COVID-19 is proving to be more challenging than anticipated. However, I do support doing the basics: wear a mask, social distance, stay away from large gatherings.
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 which affects millions of people?” Either way, almost everyone is facing a traumatic experience.
The question of calculating a value for a human life is not new. In the late 1940s, the United States Air Force wanted to know how to cause the Soviet Union the most damage with a first-strike nuclear attack. The 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, in the case of 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?” “If a business opens, do the financial risks outweigh the human risks?”
Placing a value on human life permeates many discussions. We argue over funding education and the formulas that historically seem to favor certain demographics over others. We argue over health care and whether struggling 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.
The truth is, we will always have limited financial resources. However, we make a choice of what to fund and what to promote. We can listen to the economists or we can listen to morality which 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. Every person faces choices that are traumatic and might have generational consequences.
For example, during my tenure as the Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS), we were faced with expending limited federal dollars to support the mission of providing temporary assistance to needy families.
We had a choice to make: do we give money to people and programs we like or do we support programs that further our mission and help people in need throughout the state regardless of demographics or political connections?
The answer was simple: we moved from how things had always been done to how they should be done. The focus was not driven by economics, but purposely driven by principles.
One of those principles was to use 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 upon us and our lifestyle.
In western society this question is associated with the idea that 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, then it’s their own fault. If they don’t have food or shelter, they should have worked harder.
What we need is a new perspective on how the world should work and not how it usually works. We need an understanding 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 trauma-informed approach to our decision making; 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?”
Instead, 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 at approximately $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 included in the calculation, it is easy to see the focus has been on profits and not people.
Profits and people are not mutually exclusive! To think otherwise is a false dichotomy. The founding principle of equality for all is sound. It is the practice of equity which needs work.
We must move beyond the reflexive response of intentionally or unintentionally valuing a person’s life during our decision-making process. 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? It’s a question only you can answer, but the answer begins with taking a trauma-informed approach which values all people and their experiences over power, politics, and economics.
Christopher Freeze is a former MDHS Executive Director and retired FBI Special Agent in Charge. He can be reached via www.mrchrisfreeze.com. He offers speaking, training, coaching, and listening.