As I watch the COVID tragedy unfold in the language of death rates and cytokine storms I find that Tennyson's poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, which speaks of courage under fire despite the failures of command, comes to mind.
Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
In the manner of all armies, the healthcare workers and all of those that support them join the battle because it is theirs to do. Those of us who are high risk targets of COVID or are "non-essential" can but be humbled by the courage that is the definition of that profession.
There is a larger group, however, that is mostly unheralded and deserves to be treated better. Beyond the healthcare industry there is a vast pool of workers who are termed "essential". They are the regular people who keep the systems we depend on running. They are the ones who keep your stores open so you can buy food, that keep your critical systems running, The first responders like cops and firemen who protect you. The food production industry, and the energy industry, and the distribution industry. The list goes on and on.
We focus our attention and resources on hospitals, but the young clerk at the grocery who faces a steady stream of potentially infected people, or the truckers who visits all of the hot spots, or the cops who respond to your 911 call are as vital to your future as the doctors who treat the victims. Without the truck driver the entire nation would starve and yet this vast army goes largely unrecognized and certainly uncompensated for the risk they take or the essential role they play.
I wonder at the morality of the bargain we make as society. It is the foot soldier of this war who is at risk. The captains of industry, the "upper crust", the wealthy, the connected, all stand aside and socially distance in luxury with little real inconvenience. Congress has defined themselves as non-essential and they speak pompously to us through Skype about the evils of the day but rarely act. The fortunate pay others to shop for them and to accept the risk of infection on their behalf for a minimum wage plus a modest tip and count themselves as having done the right thing.
Their's not to reason why; Their's but to do and die.
It is the nature of battle that the generals watch and tally the dead while those with status send the children of the poor to brave the hazards of the fight.
It is at times like this that I wonder about the morality of our system. The larger tragedy of this pandemic, after we have defeated the virus, we will find that the vast cost is to be borne by our children and grand children. Those of wealth and means will be largely unscathed. The billionaire class will toss a 100 million here and there and feel that they have served. The political machine will find a more muscular class of lobbyists to serve and the burdens of the poor will again be pushed from the stage. Public health and wellness as a society will again become aspirational so long as it doesn't cost too much, which it always will.
Our system makes it possible for people to amass great wealth and I think that is good. However, we lack the moral counterpoint that would lead those who are greatly blessed to perceive a real obligation to those less fortunate. I don't believe we should address this through taxation, but might we insist that people do good? There must be a point in the accumulation of wealth when it exceeds the possibility for any sane person to have an unsatisfied need. The society that makes a billionaire possible ought to have some expectation that its existence as the foundation from which that wealth is produced be recognized.
It may just be a feature of the human condition that we are our brothers keeper unless that is inconvenient. I fear that by ignoring the costs of battles, like COVID, to those of lesser means we will, in the end, kill the golden goose that has been the American capitalist system. That will be the greatest tragedy of our time.