With intensifying public health warnings over the past two weeks, it has become more and more tempting to view covid-19 through the lens of its financial effects. There have been countless articles fretting about broken supply chains for our iPhones, diminished labor availability at our coffee shops, reduced oil consumption because of canceled vacations and shaky consumer confidence overall. All of these worries have culminated in sharp drops in the markets over the past month and a generalized sense of anxiety today.
Other aspects of the story do come to the surface; we want to know how to stay safe in public and how to protect our children or grandparents. Still, a disproportionate amount of our focus has been on the financial consequences of the virus — because we as a society have given pride of place to economic reasoning.
To some extent, this makes sense. A strong economy allows us to make a living. We plan for the future in good times and use our financial resources to help each other when things are bad. At its most moral, finance — like money itself — is conceived of as a means, not an end. If money is meant to serve, it is meant precisely for moments such as this.
But today, we are not at our most moral. Our priorities are spelled out in embarrassing fashion in the daily news: “An Economic Pandemic,” “The right medicine for the world economy,“ “A Financial Crisis, But With People.” Last week, market analyst Rick Santelli suggested on CNBC that “maybe we’d be just better off if we gave it to everybody” for the sake for the economy.
Our misplaced priorities have translated into a troubling numbness to the reality of the current situation. Assuming the virus has a fatality rate on the high side of what’s feared, the possibility of global pandemic is not a story about “cheaper oil” or even market downturns but about the potential deaths of millions of people. The reason the labor supply might tighten is either that countries implement measures to protect their people from the ravages of the virus, or (much worse) that the virus truly does result in such ravages.
This is not a trivial matter. We live in a time of vast resources, but those resources are responsive to what we notice and what we value. There are many ways to tell the coronavirus story. If, even in a moment of global crisis, we find ourselves still speaking in the language of finance, we will likely fail to respond appropriately to the human tragedy at hand. The truth is that there are actual victims to this story — the (already) ill, the elderly, the homeless — but we are unlikely to see them if all of our attention is on the Charles Schwab mobile app.
This is not the only time that such madness has presented itself. Many of the greatest headlines of the age — from gaping inequality to the breakdown of local communities, from racism to the climate crisis — are all, in their own ways, stories of fixation on what the market demands over and above the people it is meant to serve. In all of these cases, we tend to obscure significant moral decisions under the logic of economic necessity.
Our peacetime fixations can be hard to relinquish when the urgent moment arises. We fret about our portfolios, worry about canceling our vacations and buy endless (largely unhelpful) face masks. It is fair consider our own security in a moment such as this. We are, however, undergoing a significant test to see whether our focus on our own concerns can give way to seeing the actual victims at hand.
Moments of crisis test our abilities to track reality. Our hidden mental state comes to the surface in times of threat, revealing what we value most. The coronavirus outbreak is testing sanity on all sides, and we may not be as levelheaded as we like to think.