What is the Value of a Human Life?
Most evenings, as I unwind from a day of work, social isolation, and profound stress, I search for the latest briefing from Governor Cuomo on YouTube. I settle in, with a sigh, to hear the latest news on how the virus is impacting our state, which Cuomo delivers with his signature pragmatism (peppered by dad jokes and dry humor) from an expansive conference room in Albany, NY.
Cuomo usually starts his briefings by listing some numbers — total hospitalizations, new hospitalizations, and COVID-19 related fatalities in the state. He used to cite the number of people who were ventilated, and those that had recovered from the virus, but he’s abandoned some of these metrics as meaningless. Sure, he talks about testing and PPE — how many ventilators we need (or don’t need), how many hospital beds we have, and how much money the state needs to get through this crisis, but I don’t watch these briefings for the numbers.
I watch because Cuomo’s briefings help ground me by reinforcing that I’m not alone and that the leaders in my state care about my life.
I wish I could say the same about the leadership at the federal level, but each day I feel increasingly more abandoned, even persecuted, because my state is blue and, apparently, that means my life doesn’t matter. The clearest evidence of this came this past Wednesday when Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell suggested that struggling states declare bankruptcy, rather than receive federal funding to help us through what is arguably one of the worst national disasters in a century.
On Wednesday, McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, “I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route. It saves some cities. And there’s no good reason for it not to be available. My guess is their first choice would be for the federal government to borrow money from future generations to send it down to them now so they don’t have to do that. That’s not something I’m going to be in favor of.”
McConnell is taking advantage of the current emergency to push his own political agenda, as evidenced by a subsequent memo released by his office which was thoughtfully titled, “Stopping Blue State Bailouts.” I know I shouldn’t be shocked about this, but I am. Refusing to help the states directly translates to more people dying. McConnell is not a stupid man. He must understand this.
People are suffering and dying
Numbers and labels can diminish true horror. They have a way of putting distance between men like McConnell and real people who are suffering. Numbers provide a veil of obscurity that is enabling the current profound lack of federal leadership. Numbers (and labels) turn people into talking points. They turn genuine need into political what-if scenarios meant to put a stop to the mechanisms of government that can actually help us.
We are workers or consumers or politicians. We are blue states or voters or constituents. We are the things you call us and that we call each other, but we are never people. We are our tax dollars and our labor and our votes.
We are the sick, the dead, or the dying and that is an acceptable — even necessary — sacrifice for a guy like Mitch.
Numbers don’t move people. I learned this pretty quickly when I started writing about the poor lack of funding for childhood cancer. I’d start my articles with a list of statistics which were meant to clarify how critically underfunded research for childhood cancer (particularly rare childhood cancer) was.
Each September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness month, I’d publish a piece that was one of many pieces that cited the same, sad pediatric cancer statistics — how many of our kids get diagnosed, how many die, and how tiny our share of the cancer research pie was compared with adult cancers. These weren’t the stories that resonated with people. They didn’t demonstrate the incredible hardship that childhood cancer causes families or what it means — really means — to watch your child die because there are no treatments out there to help her.
So, I started telling stories without statistics, stories about one child — my child — who had her life upended at the age of eleven when a giant tumor on her liver stole her health. She was just one small person — a girl who didn’t live to see her 16th birthday, but losing her ruined me.
Trading lives for politics is deplorable
Cuomo is smart enough to understand that numbers don’t paint the true scope of the catastrophe unfolding in our state, and throughout the country. That’s why his briefings, while punctuated by numbers, don’t focus on them.
Instead, Cuomo humanizes this virus by telling stories about his family, provides in-depth detail about next steps for our state and occasionally expresses outrage at the federal government, though typically not at any single politician. Unlike Trump, Cuomo’s outrage helps to further humanize him and those of us that are currently impacted by the virus (which is all of us).
This week, Cuomo made an exception to not naming names when he excoriated Mitch McConnell for playing politics by labeling governors’ repeated pleas for federal aid as a “blue state bailout.” Cuomo humanized this by listing the kinds of people being denied federal assistance: firefighters, teachers, police, and healthcare workers.
At his briefing on April 23rd, Cuomo addressed McConnell directly. He said, “If there was ever a time that you’re going to put your pettiness and your political partisanship and this political lens that you see the world through — Democrat and Republican — and we help Republicans but we don’t help Democrats — now is the time.”
And yet, I doubt that this message will get through to McConnell and those that agree with him — the people eager to open the country’s businesses again and move forward, even though it means so many more of us will die.
52,415 United States citizens have died
As of ten minutes ago, 52,415 people had died from COVID-19-related causes in the US. Of that, 31% were in my home state of New York.
I could refresh the screen every ten minutes and watch the number go up, but it won’t help me understand the magnitude of each individual loss. Losing someone dear to me is how I understand. Having empathy is how I understand.
How can McConnell, one of the wealthiest members of the senate, who sits on a partisan throne far from the common man, glean the impact of a 50,000 deaths on the American psyche? The man is almost 80 years old and super rich. No matter what, he’ll be fine. So, what fate is he condemning us to?
I remember what it was like when my daughter was dying. I was by her side up until the end, bringing her shaved ice for her parched lips, holding her hand, telling her I loved her.
The virus doesn’t allow even this small comfort. It has forced thousands of people to die, scared and alone. Each death ripples through families and communities, shattering the foundations of lives in ways that are impossible to quantify.
Each life is someone’s universe. Each death, the end of someone’s world. This is why we’re staying home, waiting for the curve to flatten then drop. This is why we’re pausing, even though it’s emptying our bank accounts and obscuring our future. This is what Mitch McConnell is letting happen.
What is the value of one single human life to a plutocrat like Mitch? One life doesn’t hold much weight against an ideology that is, at its core, nihilistic and disingenuous. He is a wealthy man who stands aloof from the problems that most of us are facing — income insecurity, the loss of publicly funded services like education, and the very real prospect of dying needlessly because lives are worthless unless they serve to further his agenda (and maybe not even then).
After the last four years of a republican-run political shit show that’s caused hardship for so many of us, I shouldn’t be surprised about McConnell’s latest crime against humanity.
Cuomo nailed it when he said, “If there was ever a time for humanity, for decency, now is the time.” Apparently humanity and decency aren’t words in the conservative lexicon. The only thing we can hope for is that McConnell, and others of his ilk, are voted out in November.