Kansas’ COVID-19 response is an enduring moral failure

Outside a meeting of the Shawnee Mission School District Board of Education meeting in September, students and parents urged the district to reopen schools more fully. (Photo by Leah Wankum/courtesy of the Shawnee Mission Post)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Aaron Schwartz has been a teacher in the Kansas City area for 13 years.

We should all be ashamed of ourselves.

There is no nice way of saying that. We should all be embarrassed. As we approach a quarter of a million American deaths — many preventable — there is nothing left to be but horrified and embarrassed by our own reactions and inaction to a pandemic that has crippled us.

We should be ashamed for uttering the words, “Well, they lived a long life.”

We should be ashamed for entertaining the idea of “comorbidities.”

We should be ashamed that we can sleep at night while thousands of people a day die alone inside isolation chambers in overfull hospitals.

But we are not ashamed. Far from it. We are what we always were: hungry for entertainment and instant gratification and for a way to pass the responsibility of our common sins — those of hunger, poverty, illiteracy, economic inequality, homelessness, racism, lack of health care, lack of mental health treatment, etc. — onto anyone or anything else than our collective greed.

We demand that things continue as normal on the backs of the sick or recently dead. We scream: “What about our mental and spiritual health?” We must have bars. We must have restaurants. We must have church. We must have sports.

We must have all these things we had before the pandemic because life just wouldn’t be worth living without them, even if it robs our neighbors of their own right to live another day.

And not only do we demand these things, we demand that someone else bear the burden of our myopic selfishness.

Hospital workers will be needlessly exposed so long as we can eat out.

Teachers will be exposed, so long as my kid isn’t feeling lonely.

Hourly workers will be exposed, so long as I have convenience.

The fact that the debate over our COVID response isn’t revolving hourly and by the minute around the soaring number of deaths, the shrinking availability of ICU beds, the weakest and most vulnerable in our society, our elders and care workers, our teachers and nurses, is morally repugnant.

And that would be bad enough. Instead, we get debates about whether or not we can still have indoor sports in schools.

We debate how we can fastest get back to full, in-person learning in schools without considering infection rates. “Well, transmission isn’t happening in schools,” we tell ourselves, while pleasantly ignoring that when a community is awash in plague, schools cannot keep the virus out.

We argue that herd immunity will save us, despite the numbers. We argue that the only ones dying are those who are compromised, despite evidence to the contrary.

“Nurses and doctors signed up for this,” we say. We will do mental gymnastics all day to prevent being even minimally inconvenienced by a pandemic currently eating human life.

Worse yet, those of us who are devastated by the loss of life and the obscenity of the reactions we see around us are called negative. We must be some sort of malcontents. Just cynics. We are told the power of positive thinking, of faith, of belief in our own abilities will save us.

It will not, and it is an affront to the dead to say so.

We are craven. Our arguments are immoral. The fact that we are debating the relative worth of human life against convenience is repulsive.

There are arguments worth having around COVID. They all should begin and end with the sanctity of human life. Period.

But we don’t want to address that argument. We are too infantile as a culture to process it. The implications scare us.

Be honest. We know what the real argument is. It’s the same response we give to most cultural and societal ills as a country.

“Well, that’s someone else’s problem.”

Until it’s not.

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