COVID-19 and the cost of human life

The recent weeks have awakened us to a new and unprecedented reality. Life is at stake, we are told, and life is precious, priceless, in fact.

A man carries his shopping bags and wears a face mask in a street in Ashkelon while Israel tightened a national stay-at-home policy following the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ashkelon, Israel March 20, 2020. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A man carries his shopping bags and wears a face mask in a street in Ashkelon while Israel tightened a national stay-at-home policy following the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ashkelon, Israel March 20, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
The recent weeks have awakened us to a new and unprecedented reality. Life is at stake, we are told, and life is precious, priceless, in fact. The world needs our actions to save life.
There is no price for human life, unless of course it’s someone else’s life or someone else’s war. For that, we will not halt our world. We will not close a single shop. We might just change the channel.
The COVID-19 outbreak presented us with a real-life question of how far we are willing to protect and preserve life. For most of us, citizens of the “lucky world,” this was the first time such a question has been posed, not in a metaphysical sense but as one with real-life consequences.
The disruption and the near-complete global halt is due to the drastic measures taken to curtail the spread of the virus. The world-wide response has indeed been impressive. Borders were shut, cities were locked down and national emergencies were declared.
As it stands today, the unprecedented global death toll of the new virus has crossed the 250,000 mark, still mostly among the elderly. Our measures appear effective in slowing the virus’s progression and “flattening the curve.” But what more are we to do if that death toll climbs? How about 300,000? What if the number approaches half a million human lives lost to the pandemic?
When it comes to global crises, those numbers are not fictional. They are very real numbers of real lost lives from the last decade alone. Some 700,000 Syrians lost their lives since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, with a peak of 20,000 a month. Syrian healthcare systems, schools, infrastructures, water and sanitation system are entirely destroyed.
Once-busy marketplaces and bazaars in historic city centers have been reduced to rubble and ash. Parents buried children who died from bombs or who drowned in the Mediterranean. The coronavirus might spare the lives of children, but war doesn’t.
Children like Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach, have a better chance surviving the pandemic than they do of surviving human conflict.
Nearly 12 million Syrians were displaced in and outside of Syria. At the same time, more than three million Iraqis fled their homes in an attempt to escape the violence of the Islamic State. In Afghanistan, the last decade was the deadliest and the most devastating, with tens of thousands dying annually.
MILLIONS OF displaced Afghanis fled to Pakistan and Turkey, and then joined Syrians and Iraqis in their flight to Europe. Our last decade produced more dead and more displaced families than any other comparable period since WWII.
Yet, and unlike with the corona outbreak, the world completely failed to act. Middle Eastern countries failed to maintain stability in their region, not stopping the virus of violence or acting to absorb refugees from neighboring countries.
Unable or unwilling to intervene, Europe stood utterly helpless facing a wave of millions of newcomers who overwhelmed national institutions, governmental services, school and health systems. The decisive actions that we see today were very much absent when it came to Syria, Congo, Yemen or Darfur.
Today, the UN and humanitarian organizations must care for nearly 70 million displaced refugees across the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic is particularly threatening to those who can’t wash their hands as often as we do, and those who lack a home to go to or a government to depend on. With a reduction in the global labor force, restrictions on movement and inadequate humanitarian efforts, those displaced families are at risk of being victimized once again by bad luck and tragic misfortune.
Viruses are dangerous. Infectious diseases remain responsible for about one quarter of deaths worldwide, causing at least 10 million deaths per year, mostly in Africa. Violence – state-led for the most part – kills hundreds of thousands per year. We are hopeful that the coronavirus will be defeated before its death toll reaches these numbers. Have we failed to recognize our priorities if our reactions to bigger calamities aren’t as vigilant as our reactions to the current pandemic?
These words are not being written to criticize social isolation, nor are they meant to compare catastrophes. After all, lives are priceless and we are commended to protect them, especially when the threat is at our doorstep.
But perhaps our time isolated in our homes might help teach another lesson from this crisis; a lesson of perspective and responsibility. We know how to save lives when we decide to do so but we have killed many more lives by our inaction than saving lives now by action. Now, as we begin to leave the confines of our homes and deal with our broader world, shouldn’t this teach us that we should act some more?

Dr. Nir Boms is the author of The Syrian War between Justice and Political Reality, and a fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies. Hussein Aboubakr is an Egyptian-American writer and commentator.