I’m willing to risk my life if it means reopening America

With at least 30 million out of work in this country and half a billion facing poverty or starvation worldwide, indefinite lockdowns are no longer an option

Because it’s there. Photo courtesy Mt. Rainier National Park

I’ve refrained from personal essays on the all aspect report in favor of researched opinion pieces. Writing in the first person breaks a sort of journalistic fourth wall and can detract from the story and analysis. Personal opinions evoke more emotional responses than dispassionate analysis and can strain the trust between journalist and reader.

I’m making an exception today because this piece addresses an issue about which none of us truly can be impartial. I’ve bolstered it with as much factual support as could be mustered but it still relies on personal experience, reasonable deductions, and, frankly, instinct. So first person it is.

I believe it is time to reopen the U.S. economy. Not one state a time, not in the herky-jerky, make-it-up-as-we-go-along manner we’ve responded to the virus so far. We need a rational, reasonable, and efficient way to get as many institutions and businesses reopened, and as many people back to work, as quickly and safely as possible. In doing so we must balance the urgent, immediate threat of the novel coronavirus against the grinding, long-term dangers of continued economic contraction and social isolation.

I make this argument well aware of the dangers: I myself am in a somewhat higher risk group for coronavirus. I have an irregular heart beat and have had a minor stroke. These things seem to run in my family – my maternal grandfather had several strokes over the course of his life and my paternal grandfather died of heart disease in his early 40s. I also live in an apartment building in a dense area, Santa Monica, and have a job that requires me to go out and interact with people, sometimes in less than ideal conditions virus avoidance-wise.

I would be well-advised to stay home as long as possible. Yet as we enter the third month of official lockdown/shelter-in-place/quarantine/self-isolation (it says something that the folks in charge can’t agree on what to call it) I’m willing to risk my health and my life if it means reopening California and United States and getting millions of people back to work. I believe that the well-being, prosperity, and long-term happiness of my fellow citizens obligates me to take the (still relatively small) risk.

All who are reasonably able to do so must consider taking that same risk, because we’ve reached a turning point in the battle against the virus: There have been casualties and there will be more. But we cannot lock ourselves away from danger forever, especially when the costs grow more unbearable by the day. The U.S. food supply is showing signs of stress, with the federal government assisting the slaughter of millions of cattle, pigs, and chickens while untold thousands of tons of produce rots in California fields. None of that plenty will make it to Americans’ tables, much less into the global food supply. Worldwide as many as half a billion people are at risk of slipping back into poverty as a result of the economic shutdown. That means millions more premature deaths, countless millions of destroyed lives. The most vulnerable will suffer the worst. No single life is worth that kind of collective harm.

Obviously I don’t want to get sick and I’d certainly rather not kick the bucket at age 44. But one Chris LeGras is not worth millions of broke and bankrupt families in this country, countless millions of broken futures and shattered dreams, nor the early deaths and suicides that are their inevitable fellow travelers. I can be a selfish prick but I’m not a lunatic.

I’m also not an idiot (at least not completely). I’ll continue social distancing, washing my hands, and avoiding large crowds. When I’m out walking the dogs and encounter an elderly person I give them a particularly wide berth. When I have to go to the store I wear a mask and carry hand sanitizer. My hands are the cleanest they’ve ever been.

At the same time I’m going to keep living my life and doing my job, and I hope all who are capable do the same. I’m going to keep investigating, writing about, and exposing the historic corruption and fraud that threaten the futures of my beloved Los Angeles and California. Investigative journalism has a particular and essential role in times like this, when it’s easy for bad people to do bad things under cover of emergency and the fog of war. Doing that job requires going out and interacting with the world because that’s where the information lives.

I’m not looking backward: Whether or not the extended lockdown was necessary will be a matter of debate for decades to come. Many a Ph.D. dissertation will be written, many an academic career made. I believe that even if it was overbroad it was effective. The mass casualties and deaths of the more, shall we say, impassioned prognosticators didn’t come to pass, and thank God for that. Nevertheless, our hearts collectively break for every person suffering and every family who has lost a loved one.

The problem is that the lockdown treatment for coronavirus is not unlike treating aggressive cancer with chemotherapy: You cannot keep the patient on it forever. It’s cliché but the cure eventually, inevitably becomes worse than the disease. We are fast approaching that point.

Now is the time for the willing to return to their lives. State and local officials shouldn’t continue to expend resources closing beaches because Governor Newsom saw some pictures on TV that bothered him. As many have pointed out there’s no justice in keeping Wal-Mart open while sending the Sheriff to shut down the local hardware store. It makes no sense to shut down the churches and synagogues while leaving open the liquor stores and pot shops. To close parks to the public while allowing vagrants to gather.

The mountains and the beaches are each and every Californian’s birthright, whether they were born here or not. We need access to them now more than ever.

Also, lifting restrictions will allow authorities to focus the efforts more efficiently on known hot zones like retirement communities, areas of particularly high density, and of course homeless populations. Getting Californians back to work also will free up financial resources to support those cohorts. Rather than sending 80 million stimulus checks government could provide long-term support for those most vulnerable to the virus.

An anonymous source has told me that the Army is shutting down the emergency field hospital it set up in the convention center last month. If true this is more good news – it means L.A. has reached a point where existing capacity can handle further expected cases. The USNS Mercy remains docked in Long Beach to handle any unexpected surge.

According to military.com field hospitals worldwide are either empty, emptying, or well below expected capacity and likewise are starting to shut down while retaining contingency capabilities. This is more good news.

In contrast, with each passing day the harm of the economic shutdown increases. Calls to suicide and other mental health hotlines have spiked nationwide; a source in Wisconsin told me that calls to a hotline in her area are up more than 300% over this time last year. Reports of domestic violence are up, likely a small percentage of the true increase. Millions of students, in particular those with special needs, risk slipping behind academically, some of them permanently. And the overall mental health impacts of long term sheltering in place aren’t yet even dimly understood. The United Nations has warned, “This is a universal crisis and, for some children, the impact will be lifelong.”

Like the virus itself the economic damage risks expanding exponentially. Supply chains cannot be rebuilt as quickly as they can be shut down. Farmers are starting to slaughter stock in increasing numbers, increasing the time it will take to recover. You can’t grow a sow overnight. With each passing day more small businesses pass the point of no return; the restaurant industry may well never recover.

These catastrophic realities, the devastating impacts on countless millions, simply render any single life insignificant.

In addition to that stroke a the age of 42 I nearly bought it when I was 19. I was at Mt. Everest base camp and came down with severe altitude sickness and pulmonary edema. I’m here today because of dumb luck: A team of doctors from UC San Francisco happened to be on the mountain at the same time testing out two then-experimental cures. The one they tried on me, a Gamow bag, worked. And here I be. Despite that scare in the years since I’ve attempted and summited dozens of peaks, including solo efforts on Mt. Rainier, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Baker, and others. Why? Because it’s worth the risk.

Of 10,000 climbers who attempt Mt. Rainier annually about 5,000 achieve the summit, and an average of five are killed. That works out to a death rate of 50 per 100,000, higher than the coronavirus death rate in than all but four states (three of which are the tri-state area that has been disproportionately hard-hit). In the mountain’s deadliest year, 1981, 11 perished, for a death rate of 110 per 100,000, higher than the coronavirus rate for all but New York state.

In other words, 10,000 people are willing to risk worse odds – potentially far worse –  than those of dying from coronavirus for a 50-50 chance to experience the thrill of summiting one of the country’s great mountains. I’d wager those kinds of folks are champing at the bit to get back to work, school, and their lives. It is time we let them.

Each and every one of us has to decide for themselves the level of risk we’re willing to take. If you want to stay inside, stay inside. For now. But it’s no longer acceptable for our elected officials – who work for us, by the way, and not the other way around, never forget that – to continue to lockdown our economy and increasingly, troublingly, infringe on our most fundamental freedoms.

It’s time for us to decide our own level of risk. Reopen California. Reopen America.

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