My mother texted me a photograph on Sunday. That doesn’t sound like a newsworthy occasion, but mom had never texted anything to me or anyone else, ever. It was a photo of the flowers I sent her for Mother’s Day. The picture was a little grainy and out of focus, but that’s what a 15-year-old flip phone will get you.
“Does this mean you’re going to start texting now?” I asked when I called her.
“No. I don’t text.”
“If you want to talk to me, you call me so I can hear your voice.”
My sister bought mom a smart phone for Christmas a couple of years ago. She returned it. I don’t think it was ever out of the box.
“I don’t need one of those.”
My mother is 80 — stubborn, sassy and sharp as ever. And much like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mother, she’s not expendable.
In March, in response to President Trump’s desire to get the economy moving again, Cuomo tweeted that elderly people are “not expendable.”
I’m glad the governor reminded me. I was seriously considering calling mom and workshopping a few scenarios.
“You know what, ma, you’ve had a pretty good run. I mean, did you ever really think you’d make it this long? Anyhow, we really need to get this economy going so what do you say you take one for the team?”
I’m trying to figure out why not wanting to see people lose their livelihoods, homes and businesses is the equivalent of giving my mother — or anyone else’s mother for that matter — the Fredo treatment.
Like every other issue that profoundly impacts American life, when and how to restart the economy is being debated along partisan lines. Early in the pandemic I was naively hopeful that our elected representatives would see this crisis as too important to deal with from the comfort of ideological bunkers. Sadly, that ship left the harbor pretty early.
Instead, the question of reopening is now being demagogued into submission. The argument goes something like this: If you want to get back to work now, the illnesses and deaths of all future COVID-19 victims are on your hands. It’s a matter of “public health versus the economy,” as Cuomo continues to repeat like a mantra.
It’s simplistic to say, as many politicians and pundits have, that reopening sooner rather than later means that more people will get sick and more people will die. That’s almost certainly true. Without a vaccine or any real treatment options in the short term, we can’t keep everyone 100 percent safe. But that’s not only a reality in a COVID-19 world, it’s a reality of life in general. That doesn’t mean I want people to needlessly perish.
The economic damage to the country is already overwhelming — 15 percent unemployment, the highest level since the Great Depression, with some 33.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits in the last seven weeks. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has already said unemployment will get worse before it gets better. Are you willing to concede to 30 percent unemployment? How about another depression? The physical and mental health ramifications of such a catastrophe are incalculable.
I’m not an epidemiologist or an “ologist” of any sort. But it seems to me that we can take reasonable measures to keep people safe while reopening for business. Grocery and home improvement stores have been allowed to remain open during the pandemic and I’m not aware in any spike in coronavirus cases that can be traced to a Piggly Wiggly or Home Depot. If we can keep people safe in those places by social distancing and wearing masks, why is an office or a bakery any different? The immunocompromised and the elderly — Mrs. Cuomo and my mother included — should stay home.
If the last two months are any indication, Americans are willing to cooperate provided the restrictions make sense. You want me to wear a mask, a bandana or a kerchief, no problem. I’ll dress up like Yosemite Sam if it’ll do any good. Social distancing? Done. There are plenty of people I don’t want within six feet of me, or six miles, and vice versa.
Unless there’s an underlying, sinister reason why some politicians want America’s economic shutdown to drag on indefinitely — I can’t imagine — we shouldn’t have to choose between public health and economic ruin.
Our elected officials and medical experts need to find the acceptable middle ground, for the sake of our mothers and everyone else.
Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.