Faculty voice:

Leonard Fleck: Op-ed: Sacrificing public health for the sake of the economy

March 27, 2020

Leonard Fleck, a professor of philosophy and a faculty member in MSU’s Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences, is among the foremost experts on the ethical dimensions of American health care. His original Op-ed can be found here.

President Donald Trump said this week that he hopes to see economic activity ramped up and social distancing practices and other public health measures reduced by Easter, which is April 12.

This is a recipe for disaster and it again vividly illustrates his dismissal of medical and scientific expertise for his own political goals.

The rhetoric he uses suggests that the financial pain the nation will experience over the next year or longer is not worth the lives that will be lost as a result of dialing back public health restrictions. I am an ethicist.

To me, Trump is forcing Sophie’s Choice decisions by people who have taken an oath to “first do no harm.”

Trump and his advisers ignore the ethical pain that health professionals will have to endure who must decide who lives and who dies because we have too few ventilators or too few ICU beds to treat all the patients who need those beds for survival.

Those harsh choices are very real right now. They would become even more tragic if public health measures now in place were loosened in order to improve economic activity.

Trump casually and thoughtlessly suggests that many fewer lives will be lost as a result of loosening public health restrictions regarding COVID-19 than is currently the case with the flu season (60,000 lives) or automobile accidents (40,000 lives).

However, these analogies are entirely misleading. We have vaccines and effective treatments for addressing the flu. Some people choose not to get the vaccine. That is often a tragic choice.

Auto accidents are also very often the result of bad personal choices: excessive speed, distracted driving, drunk driving. These are not things that can be readily controlled through public health measures of any kind.

By way of contrast, we have no vaccine and no cure on the horizon, in spite of grossly exaggerated reports earlier this month from the Trump administration to the contrary.

Further, we now know that asymptomatic people can infect others with COVID-19. That makes the virus especially insidious.

That is the relevant medical scientific fact that requires the social distancing practices emphasized by every public health official.

To read Fleck's Op-ed in its entirety, visit the Detroit Free Press.