THE IDEA that Americans grappling with the coronavirus pandemic face a stark choice between reigniting the economy and hunkering down to save lives is increasingly posed as a brutal question: Why destroy the world as we know it to save some retirees? Or, as some have reframed it even more barbarically: Why not sacrifice a finite number of vulnerable, mainly elderly people, well past their prime, for the greater good of reviving a thriving economy?

Here’s why not: It’s a phony choice, based on a false premise.

President Trump has not quite defined the dilemma in those terms, though he edged close by warning Americans not to “let the cure be worse than the problem.” Some of his acolytes have chosen their words less delicately, notably Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas, a Republican about to turn 70, who said he and other senior citizens are “willing to take a chance on [our] survival” to help return to normal daily life. “And if that is the exchange,” said Mr. Patrick, “I’m all in.”

Mr. Patrick may be offering in good faith to gamble his life for the sake of the younger generation. And he’s right that there will be severe costs — including to health and well-being — of the recession we are essentially imposing on ourselves. No one wants social distancing to last any longer than necessary, and the government should certainly be planning now the safest possible ways to return society gradually to productivity.

But there is no easy “exchange” that would spare young people — even if we were prepared to accept the immorality of jeopardizing people’s lives based on age.

Let’s suppose Americans were to do what Mr. Patrick and Mr. Trump have suggested — get back to work in a few weeks and pack the churches on Easter Sunday because, as the two men evidently believe, the economy cannot remain indefinitely in a coma. Yes, many elderly Americans would get sick and die in the ensuing weeks and months — maybe hundreds of thousands, very likely millions. But so would countless other people.

The quick and certain result of a damn-the-torpedoes approach would be to overwhelm and break the health-care system. Hospitals would fill to overflowing. Those in need of ventilators would be out of luck — not only covid-19 patients but also babies, children, tweens and anyone else in respiratory distress. People who suffer strokes, heart attacks, broken bones and gunshot wounds would arrive at hospitals — if they were lucky or rich enough to find ambulances — to find emergency rooms resembling Grand Central Terminial at rush hour. Doctors, nurses and medical technicians would face extraordinary risks; many would not be spared.

That’s not an “exchange,” as Mr. Patrick simplistically imagines. It’s a social, political, moral — and economic — cataclysm.

The costs of the pandemic-induced shutdown are colossal — to the economy, society and the nation’s collective emotional and mental health. As dangerous as that is, it is more dangerous still to pretend the pandemic can be harnessed by diktat and wishful thinking.

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