If the COVID-19 Shutdown Was Really About Saving Lives, Then Say Goodbye to Your Vices

Colorized transmission electron micrograph of the novel coronavirus that emerged in 2012 (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via NIH)

The official reason for the unprecedented closure of much of the United States in response to COVID-19 is that lives matter. Indeed, they apparently matter so much that no sacrifice is too great—neither of your freedom nor of the economy—if it can save even one life from the virus.

Surely this is a noble sentiment, and I for one do not mean to argue against it.

But it also begs the question: where was this altruistic concern before—when the lives of tens if not hundreds of millions of Americans were and continue to be needlessly sacrificed, ironically, in the name of freedom and economics?

Consider the three leading causes of preventable deaths in the U.S.: about 480,000 Americans die from smoking, 300,000 die from obesity, and 88,000 die from alcohol, every single year.

Together with the other leading causes of preventable deaths in the U.S.—such as drug abuse and motor vehicle accidents—this means that about a million American lives are needlessly lost every single year, mostly from tobacco, followed by overeating and alcohol.

Yet this hasn’t changed a thing; they are all legal. Why? Because of freedom and economics. You see, it’s your American right to smoke, drink, and overeat—just as it is the tobacco, alcohol, food, and drug companies’ right to profit from it.

Of course, and as this last point suggests, there’s much more than “freedom” involved; there’s also enticement and addiction—that is, the programming or habituating of people to do what they normally wouldn’t. In other words, it’s not just that you’re free to smoke, drink, and overeat, but that billions of dollars are spent in advertisements for the express purpose of making you want to do so.

Despite the million American lives lost every year from these vices—and the fact that most of them died more from addiction than freedom—the government has done essentially nothing about it, aside from requiring warning labels on tobacco and alcohol products. And you can’t really blame it; after all, we’re adults here, and freedom is a big premium in America.

But then COVID-19 happened and “nothing will ever be the same again.” Suddenly, our elected officials have seen the light; suddenly no sacrifice is too great if it can save lives.

Consider some statistics: 240,000 has long been the maximum number of deaths from coronavirus that the U.S. government predicted, based on figures reached by leading health experts. Although that number has significantly dropped to something like 60,000—which is about how many people die every year from infectious diseases, America’s fourth leading cause of preventable deaths—for argument’s sake, let’s stick with it: In order to save as many as 240,000 lives, no price—including severely curtailing our freedoms and completely destroying the economy, that is to say, millions of lives—has been deemed too great.

It must therefore logically follow that our suddenly enlightened betters will surely take measures and enact laws to save the exponentially greater number of American lives needlessly lost every single year—especially from the top three leading causes of preventable deaths, tobacco, overeating, and alcohol—right? (By the way, I’m not personally calling for such bans but rather showing how consistent thinking—if sincere—works.)

Look at it this way: if imprisoning people in their homes for weeks and months on end, destroying countless mom-and-pop stores around the nation, and even arresting fathers who play ball with their daughters in empty parks—while creating a culture where people are “rewarded” for reporting on their neighbors—are now deemed necessary evils, or the “new norm,” to save 240,000 potential lives, then surely something as simple and commonsensical as outlawing intrinsically unhealthy and addictive products—to say nothing of their aggressive, exploitative advertisement—must be right around the corner. After all, doing so would save millions of American lives each and every year—as opposed to just 240,000 “potential” lives from coronavirus; and that, of course, is the whole point of the current clampdown, right?

To reiterate, COVID-19 has clearly ushered in a new era of appreciation for human lives: citing your freedom or the economy to justify any potentially dangerous activities—such as playing ball with your 6-year-old daughter—appears to be out for the indefinite future, since lives matter. As such, surely our leaders will soon enact laws to combat America’s far more fatal activities; and, until such time, surely the newsrooms will keep these issues at the fore—including by daily reporting the exact number of deaths caused by America’s three leading causes of preventable deaths—just as they are doing now with the fourth leading cause of preventable deaths, infectious disease, currently in the guise of coronavirus.

Or have I missed something here?

Raymond Ibrahim, author of Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, is Shillman fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Judith Friedman Rosen fellow at the Middle East Forum, and distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

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