Something about a pandemic brings out the best in people and the worst. It shows us who we really are, whether we choose to see it or not.
There is no better contrast than Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the value of life. Both believe that sacrifices must be made during the coronavirus pandemic, but they disagree on who should be making them.
Landon thinks that every life -- regardless of age -- is worth saving. Patrick suggests that the elderly are expendable.
The notion that some Americans are disposable during a health crisis is one of the most chilling realities to come out of America's response. Patrick took it to a new low on Monday.
Appearing on Fox News' "Tucker Carlson Tonight," the nearly 70-year-old Republican suggested that the elderly might be willing to sacrifice their lives to preserve the economy for their children and grandchildren.
"No one reached out to me and said, '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?'" he said. "And if that is the exchange, I am all in."
In other words, anyone who has lived beyond their usefulness should consider getting out of the way so that everyone else can go back to work, and return to living the fun and exciting lives they are accustomed to.
Then there are people like Landon, the chief infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, who sees firsthand what the rest of us can only imagine regarding the toll this virus is taking on our health care system.
She reminded us that life is precious. And she challenged those of us who believe that to make a sacrifice by simply staying at home to stop the spread of the virus.
"I know we will get through this together and find a way back to the life that we used to live," she said at a news conference Friday held by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
"Public health and hospitals have been working hard for a long time, and now it's your turn to do your part. This is a huge sacrifice to make but a sacrifice that can make thousands of differences, maybe even a difference in your family too."
That struck a chord with a lot of people. Her brief remarks were shared over and over across the country.
Perhaps it was the absence of judgment in her voice when she asked the healthy and optimistic not to doom the vulnerable.
Maybe it was the mild tone in which she warned that America's hospitals are not equipped to handle an influx of people requiring beds, oxygen and ventilators.
Maybe it was the kind way in which she asked us to be considerate of the many doctors, nurses and other health professionals who are putting their lives on the line in order to save ours, even with inadequate protective gear.
Or maybe it was her brutal honesty in telling us that while this brutal pandemic indeed will end, many of the most vulnerable Americans -- the elderly and chronically ill -- could die.
It is likely that Landon struck a chord because most Americans are more like her than Patrick. We aren't willing to sacrifice our elderly in exchange for the convenience of going out to Easter brunch.
But we cannot ignore the growing chorus of those at this moment who are sacrificing the health of the elderly and others by roaming the city at will. Nor can we underestimate the power of corporate America to demand that politicians get things moving again.
Just two weeks after recommending isolation and social distancing, Donald Trump seems on the cusp of claiming, "Mission accomplished." The impatient president has grown tired of health officials whispering doom in his ear.
He appears ready to take the emphasis away from saving lives and put it back where he and many others believe it belongs -- on the economy, the stock market and big business.
At his news conference on Monday, Trump said we could not allow the "cure to be worse than the disease," signaling his desire to get people moving about again quickly, despite warnings from pandemic specialists that it is way too soon.
That position likely will set well with some healthy Americans who are out of work and worried about the future. According to recent polls, fewer people now believe the pandemic is a real threat than they did a month ago. Increasingly, people are beginning to think that the coronavirus is being blown out of proportion, polls show. Less than half of them are voluntarily changing their behaviors.
It is unlikely that many people agree with Patrick's position -- not outright, at least. But the failure by some to take the simple steps to bring this pandemic under control indicates that they have little regard for anyone other than themselves.
Those who continue to frivolously go out in public, even in cities such as Chicago, where a statewide stay-at-home order is in place, are sending a message that they don't care whom they might infect. They prefer to bury their heads in the sand rather than be inconvenienced.
Patrick's idea of killing off the elderly is appalling. But it is also misleading, because everyone is vulnerable. Health care workers are at risk. First responders are at risk. The people who check us out at the grocery store, deliver our meals and drive our buses are at risk. Whenever we walk out the door, we put them in harm's way.
Landon reminded us that the virus is our enemy, and to defeat it, we must treat it as a mighty foe.
"This virus is unforgiving," she said. "If we allow every person with this infection to infect three more people, and then each of them infect two or three people, there won't be a hospital bed when my mother can't breathe very well or when yours is coughing too much."
Patrick suggests that we shouldn't worry about that. Under his idea for saving America, those over the age of 60 should pay the highest price.
Soon, Americans could be at a crossroads. Trump has indicated that he'd like to see things start returning to normal by Easter.
In less than three weeks, we might have to decide what's more important -- saving lives or getting the stock market going again. For most people, the choice is easy.
The lives of their parents or grandparents are far more valuable than a thriving 401(k).
About The Writer
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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