The price of life is denominated in different currencies in the US, and some of them have rapidly decreased, while others have risen sharply.
The United States passed 100,000 coronavirus deaths on Wednesday afternoon, although the true number to have died may never be known. Death on the scale of coronavirus is hard to measure with absolute accuracy.
The US leads the world in coronavirus deaths and cases, with 1.6 million positive tests. States across the country are starting to lift lockdown measures even as cases grow.
By the end of summer, there could be another 100,000 American deaths, and millions more infected. There has been no national day of mourning yet, and maybe there never will be.
“GREAT DAY for the DOW!!” Eric Trump, the millionaire son of US President Donald Trump, tweeted just hours after the US hit the 100,000 mark, referring to a stock market index. The news of the Dow Jones Industrial Average will provide little comfort to the millions of people who knew, loved or cared for those 100,000 dead.
Coronavirus has revealed how dispensable life is in America. What price can a life have in a country whose symbols are the cowboy and the skyscraper? Are the lives of those on horseback on the range more disposable to the American experiment than those who sleep 300ft above ground?
It’s a tough question to answer. The price of life is denominated in different currencies in the US. Some of those currencies have rapidly decreased in value while others have risen sharply.
The expendability of the undocumented meat-packing plant worker, squeezed between an outbreak of the virus in their workplace and deportation back to certain death in Central America, makes for an interesting talking point, for example. Then there is the invulnerability of the idle celebrity, recounting their quarantine experience on Instagram, regretting not being able to fly overseas for the foreseeable future.
But actuarial science or economics, both upended by the weightier ethical gravity we are all experiencing due to the virus, are not enough to explain the value of life. It’s a philosophical question. What is the value of a human life?
“There is a tradition in philosophy that would say the question is almost a category error - Kant says that human lives have a dignity that is ‘raised above all price,’ so in a certain sense we are each of us of infinite value. Or, better yet, incomparable value,” said London-based philosophy professor Liam Bright, while speaking to TRT World.
But if our lives are incomparably valuable, why would anyone ever risk driving a car? A better gauge may be how we think of the value of our own lives, which varies according to our mood.
Bright adds, “Most people don't seem to treat either themselves or much less other people that way. So I think people tend to think of themselves as pretty valuable, worth a lot, but don't act like some things are beneath their dignity - the price would just have to be very high.”
Once-safe jobs in grocery stores, for example, have become more dangerous for its workers. Their wages, however, have not increased.
What is surreal is how some Americans have just assumed their lives are worth more than the lives of non-Americans. General William Westmoreland, a top US commander in Vietnam who escalated the unwinnable war, had this to say about his enemies among the Vietnamese.
“The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. And, eh, that's the philosophy of the Orient. Expresses it - life is not important,” he told a documentary in 1973.
General William Westmoreland, spoke these words in 1973. He served as the top American military commander in Vietnam at the height of the war. It was a time, like the present day, when American life seemed disposable, and the lives of America’s poor and racial minorities appeared dispensable, bearing the brunt of the battlefield toll and witnessing repressive violence at home.
We are accustomed to hearing news stories that highlight tragedies befalling individual Americans. Carnage befalling non-Americans, and particularly non-Westerners, seem to receive less attention. That is true in the US and everywhere else, too. It might in fact prove that Westmoreland was right: Lives in the “Orient” are cheap, and Western lives are expensive.
Politics in the US revolves not around ideology as much as disagreements over how much money and trouble it is worth spending in order to spare American citizens from doom. What we call “progress”, in America is often defined by legal remedies. There is, naturally, partisan disagreement on the disposability of citizens.
As many as 30,000 Americans already die due to a lack of health insurance every year. Another 30,000 or 40,000 die over twelve months due to gun violence. But those deaths are ‘’worth’’ the right to purchase a firearm or to the freedom of private insurance brokers who continue to make billions in profits.
Coronavirus is just the latest gaping pit into which Americans can throw themselves. Like guns and its exploitative, inadequate healthcare, it joins a long succession of bloody chasms stretching back hundreds of years, all the way back to its colonial origins.
The fine print of Britain’s mercantile empire, out of which Americans in revolution carved out the US in the 18th century, clearly states that survival in the “New World” for colonists was never guaranteed. The first English settlement in the Americas disappeared without a trace. The second one survived, but the colonists turned to cannibalism amid starvation during the first winter. That fine print still outweighs the rights ‘’enshrined’’ in the Constitution. How can Americans dying on ventilators, sedated and silent, hope to exercise their First Amendment to freedom of speech, religion and assembly?
That fine print suggests that Americans who perish in the coronavirus pandemic are just unlucky. Sometimes this sentiment slips out explicitly. As one sign at an anti-lockdown rally read: ‘’Sacrifice the weak.’’ As for self-sacrifice, Lt. Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, said he himself was prepared to die of COVID-19 if it meant keeping American freedoms alive for his grandchildren.
By 1973, President Richard Nixon had been planning for many years to withdraw from Vietnam ‘’with dignity”. The US still sent its citizens to fight, kill and die 7,000 miles away, taking loved ones away from their families. But continuing with the war, and even expanding it, meant Nixon could bleed resources out of the Soviet Union, a larger Cold War goal.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, a holiday honouring the US war dead, dozens of American states prepared to relax social distancing measures, despite coronavirus cases continuing to increase in new areas, moving from dense urban to rural areas. There has been a heavy death toll in the country, but there are still 320 million Americans, a figure so large that 100,000 dead could be a statistical rounding error. It’s “only” .031% of the US population.
"Our capital stock hasn't been destroyed — our human capital stock is ready to get back to work, and so there are lots of reasons to believe that we can get going way faster than we have in previous crises," Kevin Hassett, a Trump economic adviser, said in a television interview on Monday.
Hassett offers an optimistic outlook for the recovery of the economy, which has shed at least 40 million jobs as social distancing erases daily life. But referring to people as “stock” caused a minor uproar. Although “human capital” is a generally uncontroversial term, “stock” can also refer to cattle.
“An ugly term w (sic) an ugly history, but for many powerful ppl (sic), it‘s their most honest view of workers: human stock,” tweeted US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat representing one of the districts in New York City that has been hardest hit by coronavirus. “By their logic, the moment a person stops being useful to profit motive (retirement, health, etc) they are a liability.
“That’s the system we live in. Let’s also not ignore the racial history of this terminology, which has roots in slavery. It’s not just the terminology that’s racialized. Even today, the folks deemed as ‘human capital stock’ (aka essential workers) are disproportionately Black, Brown, & low income White folks.”
Constitutional rights, including the amendment banning legal slavery, have not succeeded in ending the monetisation of human beings. Although the founders of the republic wrote about the essential rights of human beings as forming the basis of a just government, many of those same founders counted human beings as part of their wealth.
That attitude continued after the Civil War: a rebellious minority of Americans decided they were prepared to die to maintain this system that underpinned the racial hierarchy so precious to the preservation. One study showed that this way of life took a particularly cruel toll on children and infants born into slavery.
“Infants and children were the most negatively impacted segment of the enslaved African American population... Neonatal tetanus, transmitted through the umbilical stump as a result of improper handling, was also a common cause of death for these newborns, as was diarrhea, nervous system diseases (including neurosyphilis), whooping cough, and respiratory diseases” Patrician Lambert, an anthropologist at Utah State University, wrote in a 2006 paper examining the remains of plantation burial plot in North Carolina.
“Most babies fell below 5.5 pounds at birth and two-thirds of infants died within the first month, a pattern attributed to hard work required of pregnant mothers, especially during peak seasons.”
This so-called civilisation never expired. It simply mutated into the United States of today. The same patterns remain. Crucially, the same priorities remain. The life of a newborn baby was not worth bringing their mother back from forced labour, performed under threat of whipping, maiming or death. It was a lifetime of torture, founded on the principle that some lives were not worth saving or even maintaining beyond the bare minimum.
We can see them etched across the demographics of who is dying in the US from coronavirus. Around a third of all deaths are black Americans - they make up just 13 percent of the US population. One reason, experts believe, is a combination of overrepresentation in jobs that do not allow social distancing and a lack of access to quality healthcare. These trends are likely to continue. Americans, desperate for work, will take whatever job they can find, even if it means risking their life for very little money.
What is the cumulative effect of the devaluation of American life? It may mean that people consider themselves to be less valuable, and decide to take more risks with their lives. That could lead to an increase in civil disorder and violence. The country will separate into a caste system: one that is too rich to die and another too poor to live. Over the long term, that may mean some Americans are more willing to die, or kill, for the sake of causes that could give their deaths more meaning, more value, than the lives they lived.
Whether those causes turn out to be just and right is a question to which no one yet has an answer.