Opinion

It’s Not as Simple as Choosing Between Saving the Economy or Saving Lives

Focusing on one doesn’t make problems with the other go away.
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For more than 60 days now Filipinos have been living under one of the longest and strictest community quarantines in the world. Many of us are now asking when and how to ease restrictions, revive the economy, and return to some sort of normalcy.  

Reviving the economy is a necessary part of moving into the next stage of living with this virus, which involves preventing a socio-economic collapse that would exacerbate the current crisis. But how can we do this safely?

There are many dimensions to answering this question, here I will focus on its ethical aspect. I argue that policy decisions should be directed toward minimizing harm to both lives and livelihoods. The way to do this is to build solidarity.

Minimizing harm on lives and livelihood

There is a deep connection between saving lives and protecting livelihoods. We could fail to appreciate this connection if we focus on maximizing outcome, which is especially associated with exclusive emphasis on some economic indicators such as attaining a V-shaped recovery.

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But maximizing outcome at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and peril does not make sense. There’s a lot that we don’t know about the COVID-19 and how the local and global economy would be affected by efforts to contain it. When we need to think about deeply difficult questions—and there’s a lot that we don’t know—our brains are susceptible to switching from a difficult question to an easy one.

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The difficult question is about how we can promote related ends—lives and livelihoods—at a time when uncertainty and peril creates certain tradeoffs. The temptation is toward black and white thinking that reduces the problem to either just saving lives or protecting livelihoods.

The reality is that focusing on one does not make problems with the other go away.

For instance, focusing only on the economy would not make problems about high infection rates and strain on public health resources go away. Overall  economic outlook and consumer confidence cannot be robust if many are sick or dying and public health resources are depleted. Focusing only on the economy with an interest in maximization would most likely inflict a lot of damage to lives, public health resources, and even the economy itself. We should focus on  minimizing harm on lives and livelihoods because this is the way that we could re-open the economy safely and sustainably. 

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We would do well to consider  the connection between lives and livelihoods from the perspective of the vulnerable, for whom protecting livelihoods is a matter of saving lives. An upshot of either-or thinking about lives and livelihoods from the perspective of the privileged is a tendency to  save livelihoods in terms of big business and the stock market; while being willing to sacrifice  the lives of those who can be designated as “combatants” in a questionable effort to build herd immunity or considered more resilient to infection because they are not “sheltered.”  

The specious opposition between saving lives and protecting livelihoods would disappear when we focus on questions such as, “What’s the point of protecting livelihoods?” and “What do we want to revive the  economy for?” The right answer is to promote social harmony, the welfare of all, and the flourishing of diverse communities. Minimizing harm on both lives and livelihoods should be directed toward promoting these ends. 

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Building solidarity

Solidarity is about recognizing our shared humanity in a way that facilitates the effort to promote just social structures and inclusive communities. The core experience behind solidarity is the recognition that someone very different shares my humanity. Such an experience happens when we encounter indigents, strangers, or even reprobates and recognize them as kapuwa, a term which literally means another who is part of who I am.

Right now, recognizing our shared humanity is directly connected with realizing that everyone is susceptible to getting infected, and becoming seriously ill or passing on the infection to intimates.

Choosing to abandon,  forget, or de-prioritize certain sectors of society could cause incalculable damage. The resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Singapore illustrates this point. Even the most efficient system for tracing, testing, and treating infection would fail if a vulnerable sector is forgotten. In the case of Singapore, it was migrant construction workers who live in cramped quarters who were left behind, to the detriment of an entire country.

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We must be vigilant against patterns of thinking that lead to exclusion, which is the opposite of solidarity. Such patterns of thinking include vilifying or commending certain groups as a basis for leaving them behind or affording them less protection. Although very different, both of these patterns lead to the idea that some people are different in a way that warrants being less concerned about them because, say, they’re incorrigible rule-violators (pasaway) or unusually resistant to disease compared to a privileged in-group.

Thinking of poverty as a function of bad choices and lack of character also leads to exclusion because it excuses selective forms of helping that turn a blind eye to unjust economic policies and social structures. In contrast, solidarity, especially with vulnerable groups allow for a systemic approach to alleviating hunger, controlling the spread of the disease, and managing its socio-economic fallout.

We need an approach to reviving the economy and managing community quarantine conditions that considers everyone, especially the least. Only such an approach would allow us to do the right thing and avoid worst possible outcomes. 

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Jacklyn A. Cleofas, Ph.D., is assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy, Ateneo de Manila University. Her research is focused on ethics, especially moral psychology. 

 

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Jacklyn Cleofas, Ph.D.
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