NM State Representative Gregg Schmedes, Tijeras
"First, do no harm." It's a saying almost as old as the idea of medicine itself. I heard it a lot in medical school. It's something that New Mexico's leaders need to think long and hard about right now.
At the beginning of our fight with COVID-19, our leaders acted quickly on limited information. But now, we have better data and experience that beg a more sophisticated approach as our nation grapples with balancing public health and the economy.
There's another saying going around right now: "The cure must not be more deadly than the disease." The more we delay re-opening, the more lives we endanger, violating the "do no harm" principle. Domestic violence has drastically increased in Albuquerque, as reported by District Attorney Torrez and the Domestic Violence Resource Center. New Mexico is second in the country for suicides per capita. We are vulnerable to increased unemployment and poverty rates, factors intimately associated with suicide.
Those who advocate for earlier business re-opening have been accused of being a "death cult" by Governor Lujan Grisham's spokesman. Yet, on April 16, the U.N. warned that the economic downturn would cause tens of millions to fall into extreme poverty and that hundreds of thousands of children could die.
People die from poverty. There is a well-documented relationship between poverty and disease, just as there is between unemployment and suicide.
But advocates for later re-opening don't seem to appreciate that a robust economy saves lives every day. Instead, they argue that those who discuss economics don't value human life.
What began as the idea of "slowing the spread" has morphed into the argument that we should all stay home until a cure is found. That, I'm afraid, is not only an unreasonable mentality, but a fundamentally dangerous one.
Experts agree the total number of Americans who will contract coronavirus ultimately won't be changed. The virus will run its course. Although the goal of social distancing was originally to protect hospital capacity, the goal-posts have been moved to a focus on "saving lives." Slowing the spread was never supposed to be a way to prevent transmission entirely, or to shut down the nation for 18 months or more to find a vaccine: it was to make sure hospitals could keep up. Clearly, New Mexico's hospitals are dealing with the demand just fine.
We can all agree that human life is precious. We should take every reasonable measure to protect life. What we have to deliberate about now is what is reasonable.
Is it reasonable to ask people to permanently give up on their career to lower the possibility of overwhelming a hospital?
What we hate is the loss of control. We are used to the illusion that we can control everything in comfort.
Perhaps the most well-respected infectious disease doctor in the world, Paul Farmer, said, "We know that the risk of acquiring HIV does not depend on knowledge of how the virus is transmitted, but rather on the freedom to make decisions. Poverty is the great limiting factor of freedom."
This principle can be seen impacting the Navajo Nation, disproportionately affected by COVID.
Our leaders should be paying attention to the massive death toll that economic devastation and closure of our health-care system takes on society at large. We're treating COVID with blinders on. If our society were one of my patients, the doctor in me says we need to treat the whole patient, not just one symptom.
Re-opening businesses and our health-care system shouldn't be viewed as devaluing human life. Rather, it should be seen as an act of love.