In the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove,” general “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) tells the president (Peter Sellers) “Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now for us to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable but nevertheless distinguishable postwar environments, one where you’ve got twenty million people killed and the other where you’ve got one hundred and fifty million people killed.” To which the president replies, “You’re talking about mass murder, general, not war.”
It is one of those fabled hypotheticals which most of us have posited or had posited to us, where you are faced with a choice between two dreadful necessities where the lesser of the two evils is in itself too horrible to imagine. More Sophie’s Choice than Hobson’s Choice. Life seldom presents us with such choices but we are all, as a world community, faced with one now. On the one hand the terrible consequence of our current situation could, if we act and act decisively, result in a devastating economic downturn that may result in a second Great Depression. On the other hand, millions of lives could be lost. As human beings we choose the former. It is neither a brave nor bold choice, it is simply the one we make — because we are human beings.
But Donald Trump is not a human being. He is a monster. And as a monster Trump cannot bring himself to take decisive actions that will save lives at a cost to the economy. So instead he blames and finger points and drags his feet. He wants to send everyone back to work so he can return to his golf and his Nuremberg style rallies. He wants to have his way, and he comes from a world that is impossible for most of us to even imagine, a world where every one of his wants and needs gets fulfilled by a hyper-vigilant coterie of lickspittles and sycophants.
So now we are faced with both consequences. The grim reality of our current situation is now so dreadful as a direct result of political intransigence, not merely on the part of Donald Trump, but because of the reluctant, slug-brained ineptitude of our world leaders, that it may be far too late to save human lives or the economy anyway.
My educational background is in mathematics. Numbers have a grim, unsympathetic integrity of their own. If it’s true that 100,000 Americans have been identified as infected with COVID-19, given the woeful inadequacy of the present availability of testing, this suggests to me that somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million to 40 million Americans are currently COVID-19 positive. In other words around a rough order of 10 percent of the total American population. This is based on how many of the known infected have infected others, plus how many of the roughly equivalent unknown infected have also infected others, in the absence of the implementation of effective nationwide quarantine and isolation strategies. I hope I’m wrong. We will know for sure whether I am or not in the next week to ten days.
If I’m right in this then the final worldwide infection total will end at about 50% infected. This estimate comes from a recent paper published by Imperial College, London (“Report 12: The Global Impact of COVID-19 and Strategies for Mitigation and Suppression,” 26 March, 2020). It states that in the absence of mitigation strategies, which includes isolation and social distancing, the number of infected worldwide would have been about 7 billion, that is, about 90.9% of the world population, resulting in around 40 million deaths this year. That number could be nearly cut in half if effective mitigation strategies continue and — this part is crucial — “[virus] suppression strategies [are] maintained in some manner until vaccines or effective treatments become available to avoid the risk of later epidemics.” In other words, we are in this thing for a very long time, and we must remain in this thing until a vaccine arrives.
But what of the domino effect? This question addresses the issue of collateral deaths. If you have a heart attack, a burst appendix, a pregnancy complication, any number of medical emergencies, the current strain on worldwide healthcare resources may delay your treatment to devastating effect. When they result in death these deaths will not necessarily be counted as coronavirus deaths. But they will count because, in a pandemic-free world, they wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
This is why greed is so deadly dangerous. It has always (I repeat, always) been this dangerous, we just haven’t had it brought to our attention this graphically before. We are simply seeing, out in the open, for the first time, why it has always been true, always been deadly. Billions of people have died throughout human history precisely because of this Republican-style greed. We are only now finally seeing it, as they used to say, in living color. Greed has finally gotten around to knocking on the doors of the middle and upper classes.
We are lucky, in a way. We could have learned this lesson in the manner of “Dr. Strangelove,” where every man, woman, child and animal on earth dies in the end. You might say we are getting off cheaply. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the harsh lesson we required and it has arrived just in time. Who knows, we may even learn our lesson this time. That it is a hard lesson is the uncomplicated grim reality. That it will be a sad one — because we are human beings — cannot be denied. As ever ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.