There is so much being asked of us in these trying times: patience and compassion, discipline and civic-mindedness, courage and reason. But the moral compass of society and politics is likely to be the most important factor in the coming weeks. The longer the economy remains in paralysis, the more pressing will become the question as to whether it’s worth it. In less existential times, the question is taboo: How high a price is society willing to pay to save human lives?
We are right to shy away from it, because it touches on human dignity – which is the first priority of Germany’s constitution. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo neatly summed up the dilemma a week ago when he said: “We’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.”
But can the question be asked anyway? Is it morally justifiable? Can the economic losses incurred as a result of the lockdown be weighed against the human lives that would be lost if the disease were allowed to spread uncontrolled?
The answer is: Yes. In fact, it is an imperative. Liberal democracy thrives on open debate, on the weighing of social goods, and we cannot abandon that, especially during an existential crisis. And this applies even more to the most difficult decisions, which cannot be made without making clear what is at stake. It is neither immoral nor cynical to clearly identify what must be weighed against each other.
Those things are the short-term catastrophe caused by the spread of the virus versus the long-term disaster of a recession and the political upheavals it could unleash. Human lives today versus societal distress down the road. It’s likely, after all, that the consequences of an economic decline will hit the people most in need especially hard. And the risk the virus poses to seniors must also be weighed against the burden of economic collapse and debt for the younger generation. Moreover, if Europe were to fall into a deep recession, it could strengthen the populists and the authoritarians, and it could even endanger democracy – perhaps not in Germany, but elsewhere in Europe.
COVID-19 is forcing decisions upon us that can shatter a society. Indeed, we’re facing more of a trilemma than a dilemma, because three social goods must be weighed against each other. The first is prosperity and social security. The second is our civil rights in a democracy – our freedom of movement and assembly, which have been curtailed. The third is our humanity and the state’s duty of to protect health and human life.
Even before the corona crisis, the question of the price of life was with us. Every decision to reduce hospital staff or to provide less equipment for emergency rooms is indirectly a choice with life-or-death consequences, as is every discussion about the use of expensive cancer drugs on people in the later stages of their lives. But never before was the question so stark for so many.
As an initial reaction to the outbreak of the pandemic, it was right to follow the advice of virologists and to shut the country down in order to stem the uncontrolled spread of the virus. Compassion and solidarity are the foundations of democracy; without them, it cannot exist. But in the coming weeks and months, we will have to continually reassess. At that point, serious decisions will have to be made about what risks we are willing to take to get the economy back on track. Or whether the solution could be to isolate the most vulnerable.
Politicians will need to debate and communicate the alternatives more openly than they have done so far. Otherwise, there’s a danger the pattern seen after the influx of refugees in Germany in 2015 will repeat itself. Back then, the initial impulse of solidarity was quickly replaced by a wave of rejection and even hatred toward German politicians and Chancellor Angela Merkel. As with the refugee crisis, much will depend on whether Germans view the corona crisis and the response to it as a failure of the state or whether they conclude that politicians reacted appropriately.
Thus far, the government’s talk of a “bazooka” to prevent economic collapse and bulging state coffers have created the impression that Germany can ride out a multi-month lockdown without suffering any grave consequences. But that is a dangerous idea. It would be better to prepare people for the hardships to come. And far greater solidarity will be needed: If we protect those facing the greatest health risks today, we must ensure that the price isn’t born down the road by those facing the greatest economic risks tomorrow.