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An inexact morality

On Tuesday, Wisconsin became the 17th state in the nation to order businesses closed and residents to stay at home as a way to halt the scourge of the coronavirus.

Gov. Tony Evers ordered his “safer at home” policy by appealing to people’s sense of morality.

“At the end of the day, folks, we are all in this together, and during the most difficult times we are called upon to remember our Wisconsin values of kindness, compassion, empathy and respect,” the governor said.

But others are not so sure “stay at home” orders are the right thing to do.

Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is skeptical. The senator told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week that, yes, coronavirus is a serious threat and, again, that efforts to contain the disease are needed, but that shutting down large sectors of the economy is also dangerous, perhaps too much so. In a macabre kind of calculation, Johnson said that “it’s probably not worth shutting our economy down” over coronavirus.

Johnson said he wasn’t indifferent to the plight of people who may get sick and die from coronavirus, but he was realistic, too. “We don’t shut down our economy because tens and thousands of people die on the highways,” he said. “It’s a risk we accept so we can move about.”

The senator soon had company in his skeptics club. On Monday, President Donald Trump argued for reversing “stay at home” orders quickly to avoid severe damage to the economy. He brought up Johnson’s car fatality example. “And you look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about,” he told the press. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody, ‘No more driving of cars.’ So we have to do things to get our country open.”

Both Johnson and President Trump make a point, but, in the end, they are wrong. That’s because interrupting commerce to save millions of lives in a fight against coronavirus is worth the price. That’s not Harvard University ethics class stuff. That’s just plain old right and wrong.

The auto fatalities cited by Johnson and Trump are acceptable because they are, indeed, a small number that continues to get smaller. Back in 1971, the U.S. had 52,542 auto fatalities. This calculates to 25 deaths per 100,000 Amercans. In 2018, auto fatalities had dropped to 36,560, which is only 12 deaths per 100,000 Americans. A worst case scenario for the coronavirus plague in the United States, however, is two million deaths. That’s 611 deaths per 100,000 Americans or 51 times the annual auto fatality rate.

Yes, we can agree with Sen. Johnson that we tolerate thousands of car fatalities a year so we, as the American motoring public, can travel 2,950 billion miles, but nobody would tolerate 51 times that number. That would be a moral outrage.

What both Johnson and President Trump seem to be missing, too, is how many lives could possibly be saved through “stay at home” orders. Recent research done by Columbia University can help us here. The research projects that without any coronavirus transmission controls, Marathon County would suffer an August infection rate of 83 percent. One hundred and ten thousand people would be sick. With this number of sick people, and, assuming a death rate of 1.4 percent, there would be 1,540 deaths due to coronavirus. With severe control measures, however, the researchers say, the infection rate is less than one percent by August with only 1,100 people getting infected. Fifteen people would die. Controls would save the lives of 1,525 people. Certainly, projections like these are, as the Columbia researchers themselves state, “inherently uncertain,” but, even if they are wildly wrong, their work more than justifies a temporary halt to non-essential commerce.

There is no precise calculus to determine just how many people must be laid off and how many businesses must close to save some exact number of lives from coronavirus. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, the best we can do is take a moral stance and act on our beliefs.

Gov. Evers gave voice to this inexact morality in his Tuesday remarks. “Obviously, we want a strong economy--who the hell doesn’t--but the fact of the matter is we have to value human life at some point at a higher level,” he said.