Skip to Main Content

WASHINGTON — How and whether to prevent disease is suddenly a political question. And in the face of the economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus, a small but growing number of conservatives has come down forcefully on the side of “don’t.”

Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, said during a Monday appearance on Fox News that elderly Americans should “take a chance” on their survival and put themselves at risk for coronavirus so the rest of America can restart the economy. President Trump has argued — on Twitter and in public appearances — that “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!” In Virginia, Jerry Falwell Jr., a conservative activist and president of Liberty University, said the school would welcome students back to campus next week, even as the state announced Monday it would shutter its public schools through the summer.


In the face of a potentially once-in-a-generation pandemic, whether one takes steps to “socially distance” from others is beginning to serve as a statement of one’s political values. And as coronavirus cases in the United States continue to spike, the prospect that some conservatives might abandon those measures en masse has alarmed public health experts, who say that giving up now would result in thousands of unnecessary deaths — and effectively sacrifice many of society’s most vulnerable.

Attitudes like Falwell’s represent “an absurdly callous perspective,” said Wendy Parmet, a Northeastern University law professor who specializes in health care and bioethics.

“Whose loved one is he willing to sacrifice?” she asked. “We do need to make sacrifices for one another. But we need to make smart sacrifices, and it’s critical that we don’t just devalue some people as non-important.”


The conservatives’ approach offers a direct rebuke to public health messaging employed not only in the United States but in hard-hit countries like South Korea, where aggressive testing and distancing measures blunted the disease’s spread, and in Italy, where deaths appear to have finally slowed weeks after the country imposed a nationwide lockdown.

In the United States, however, where thousands of spring breakers in their 20s flocked to Florida’s beaches last week, many appear not to have grasped the gravity of the pandemic that has overwhelmed hospitals in China, Italy, and Spain, and could soon do the same here.

This week in particular, some right-wing political leaders have increasingly pushed to roll back social distancing measures in response to the shuttered businesses, collapsing stock market, and spiking unemployment rate that the coronavirus panic has caused. The argument: The global economy has nosedived so dramatically that the expected recession could cause more suffering than the virus itself. Americans, many have argued, should be allowed to return to work — even if doing so will result in the virus spreading more quickly.

Support STAT: If you value our coronavirus coverage, please consider making a one-time contribution to support our journalism.

Other politicians, including many conservatives, have warned that the U.S. can’t restart its economy without taking aggressive steps to slow the virus. Hastily focusing on economic well-being, public health experts say, would effectively leave the most vulnerable Americans behind.

“What does it say about our society if we are willing to sacrifice one group for economic gain?” said Dina Borzekowski, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “This is a pandemic, and shouldn’t be played out as a skirmish on a neighborhood playground.”

In recent days, however, Trump has effectively lent the myopic focus on the economy a voice and a megaphone. In a Fox News appearance Tuesday, Trump said he hoped the American economy would be “opened up and raring to go by Easter” — just three weeks away.

Others have gone farther: Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts chain that once sued the federal government to avoid requirements that employer health plans include birth control, announced in a controversial letter to employees that its stores would remain open even as other large retailers closed.

Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, said Monday on Fox News, “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.”

In the past two days, Trump has resumed comparisons of the coronavirus to the yearly death toll from car crashes and the seasonal flu. Those remarks mirror his early talking points in February, when he called Democrats’ criticisms of his response a “hoax” and argued that despite the flu’s five-figure death count, the country did not shut down its economy each flu season.

Trump and many other figures advocating for an end to social distancing have already developed a dubious track record on public health policy, Parmet said.

“We need to remember that some of the people who are suggesting this are the same people who said there was no problem, and this was just the common cold,” she said. “Hundreds of people in this country have died since then.”

Both medical groups and prominent political figures on Tuesday began to forcefully push back: On Tuesday, the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, and American Nurses Association issued an open letter pleading the public to stay home.

“We are not willing to sacrifice 1-2% of New Yorkers,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter. “That’s not who we are. We will fight to save every life we can.”

Health experts have acknowledged, however, that urging Americans to stay home for weeks on end carries legitimate costs. Unemployment and poverty yield poor health outcomes in the long term, and keeping Americans cooped up will likely result in a wave of physical and mental health problems in the coming weeks.

“We shouldn’t minimize the pain of the social distancing any more than we should minimize the pain and cost of the virus,” Parmet said.

But prioritizing the economy over public health is likely a false choice, experts say, arguing there is no scenario in which the economy flourishes in spite of mass sickness, overwhelmed hospitals, rolling self-quarantine periods, and spiking death tolls.

And many Republicans — including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally — have said the same.

“There will be no normally functioning economy,” Cheney wrote on Twitter, “if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus.”

  • I voted for Hilliary Clinton in 2016, but on the issue of Covid-19 virus, I happen to agree with Trump. I do not want people to die, but I think the idea of socially isolating ourselves from each other is worse than the actual disease. Human beings are created to be social engineers of change and harmony who depend on each other for substance and care.

    Talking with someone on a web chat is nowhere near as good as actually spending time in the same room with them. How are you supposed to have a life if you cannot give someone a handshake or hug or kiss or a simple touch of affirmation because you are too scared of dying? Human beings need assurance that someone cares for them.

    There are many people struggle with depression who can not live alone. I do not hear any opinions that discuss the effect that social isolation has on the mentally ill. Let’s get real about this issue. A person’s life consists of their mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, and what difference does it make if a person lives if they have mental and emotional problems that result from social isolation.

    We are acting contrary to the purpose of why we exist. I agree with Trump that I think it is possible to start planning for a time when the CoVid no longer exists if we work together and become unified in purpose. If we remain stagnant and do not think about the future, then the quality of life will deteriorate to nothing.

    • I guess there is a big switch going on with many who voted for Trump now wanting him removed and some who voted for Hillary now wanting the elderly removed.

      What a crazy world we live in.

      Some of your points are valid but tamping down this disease to the point where we can track who is impacted and quarantine and treat them is essential.

      But now that I am antiTrump it is ironic that a Hillary supporter is now advocating for the genocide of the elderly and folks with health conditions that make them very vulnerable.

      Some of us observe what is happening in nursing homes. They are not lonely there, just dying.

      Democrats are really very weird human beings.

      I grew up being very lonely as my parents had a business to run. Being lonely is terrible. It beats gasping for breath, turning blue and dying. But I am not minimizing it having had to deal with it for many years. but there is a time and place for everything.

      Please do not murder people. But if you have already been exposed and treated and cured that is a different matter. We may be able to recruit such folks to deal with those who are at risk.

  • The totally irresponsible money-greedy disposition of far too many rogue political “leaders” in the US will predictably lead to civil war – as already foreseeable by the significantly increased equally wild gun sales in the US. To not heed dire warnings of a nation’s own medical professionals invites such dissent. The rogue politicians ought to be on the front lines in overloaded hospitals (without PPEs) – – it likely will shake some sense into them. Without cohesive approach within one country, it will be destined for civil war. This is horrible. Good luck to the land of stars an stripes.

    • I do not think your comment is helpful at all. I oppose Trumps eagerness to return to “normal” but to not respect the perspective of those who disagree with us moves us farther apart rather than closer together.

      I do not think we are going to have a civil war since different points of view live side by side and even if there were a splitting up of people there would be infection in both groups

      So it is not like a late night horror movie.

      We need rational discussion not emotional ranting.

  • Flattening the curve is to give us time to prepare for the new normal of coronavirus outbreaks until there are vaccinations and treatments. We will have to make a societal change and adapt to get back to work. The research, outreach, medicine, beds, ventilators cost money that as a community we have to financially support. USA is a world leader because our economy pays for all this and more. We will have to get back to work & we need to be prepared. The lesser effected regions should push up the economy so N.Y., CA, can keep going. Also New customs are needed. That wal-mart greeter needs to give hand sanitizer to every person who walks in, use your wipes to clean pin pads, gas pumps, things you touch etc…. enter or leave a building hand sanitize, make electronic scanning thermometers available, if someone is diagnosed and self isolated celebrate (or at least thank) their responsible action. We can’t hide from this.

  • Sadly the pandemic is inevitably politicized because it has exacerbated and highlighted deep economic problems, both local and global. And the fact is – if there’s no course correction for the economy, we will enter a recession that is like, or worse than, 2008. Maybe even a long-term depression, depending on how things play out with bailouts and stimulus packages. Suicide rates – which are relatively high already and well connected to poor economies-will rise if we hit depression era economics. So… what about those lives? It’s especially unhelpful right now to be so polarized because we’re in a situation that’s just going to claim lives, one way or the other. How many lives will corona take? How many will die of suicide in the next great depression if we shut everything down completely? Those are questions we’ve never had to ask but need to- and cooperation between health agencies and politicians is the only way. So we need journalism that asks good questions and probes for options right now, not biased opinion pieces.

  • STAT should stick to articles that concentrate on science, data, treatment options, vaccine research, etc. It looks to me that too many of the articles, either owing to their headline lead, or author bias, are turning STAT into another CNN or FOX left/right pissing contest driven by commenters who only want to hurl political barbs. I’m losing interest here.

Comments are closed.