Back on March 21st, David Potts offered up an article recommendation on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, Tomas Pueyo’s “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance,” on Medium (first published March 19, updated April 1). Since then, David’s recommendation has gotten buried in the blog storm I’ve posted, so I’m seconding his recommendation (along with the further auxiliary recommendation I made in the comments of his post, and have repeatedly made since then: the hammer requires the direct provision of aid to those in desperate need of it, whether health care workers, or the unemployed).
I agreed with Pueyo’s article when I read it quickly back in March, and whether it’s the updates or the logic or both, I agree more strongly with it now than I did then. Like David, I highly recommend it. Read it, send it around, sign his (Pueyo’s) petition, and engage anyone in your social or intellectual circle who offers up prescriptions that would dilute or subvert the effect of the ones Pueyo offers. The alternatives are just as he puts them: it’s either the “hammer and the dance” or danse macabre.
And yes, the hammer requires enforcement. It can’t be left to mere voluntary persuasion or agreement: if we do, the inevitable free riders blunt the force of the “hammer,” and leave us without time to do the “dance.” Without that time, we face mass death beyond the mass death we already have to expect. Feel free to ignore this if you think the strain on our health care system and workers has been low, and the death toll eminently tolerable so far. But if that’s what you think, you’re a sociopath, not an “influencer.”
There is no moral reason why we must leave social distancing to voluntary persuasion or agreement. If we make unenforceable suggestions, people will flout them, as they already have. Those free riders aren’t just creating some morally neutral or equanimity-compatible “externality”; they are aggressing against others by an epidemiological version of Russian roulette–where a bullet in the chamber means critical care hospitalization or death for others (or oneself, come to that).
Those who refuse to distance are initiating force against innocent victims. And like it or not, that force must be met with sufficient retaliatory force to stop its initiation. We don’t let bank robbers or rapists rob or rape, whether or not they kill their victims. We don’t even just shame them, and hope they’ll stop. We stop them. If they fight back and resist arrest, we escalate force against them; if they keep resisting, escalating force against police escalations of force, they invite death by engraved invitation, and should unapologetically be obliged.
We shouldn’t let epidemiological free riders aggress against us, simply because the causality they use involves a disease vector rather than firearms, knives, or brute force. Whatever the precise mode of causality, the refusal to engage in social distancing is a clear rights-violative boundary-crossing–whether culpable or not, whether reckless or intentional. What applies to the enforcement of laws against other rights-violations, applies here–the same procedural rights, but the same resolve to stop aggression in its tracks, rather than appease it, excuse it, tolerate it, pretend that it isn’t there, or re-describe it so that it “goes away.” The predictable result of such evasions is that more of us will go away.
We’re still in the “hammer” stage of Pueyo’s prescriptions. If we apply it properly, we’ll eventually get to the dance, and can put the hammer down. But not until then.