Penny Wise

Wars are expensive. Our government has fought or aided others in several wars that have proved costly for our country and provided no tangible benefit. We do not hear much about our aid to the Saudi Arabian-backed conflict in Yemen. We never heard much about our support for a fellow named Osama bin Laden until he decided to turn the war machine we helped him build to attack us.

My generation was told we had to fight in Vietnam to protect the world from autocratic, communist governments that were intent on pushing their way into all the countries of southeast Asia and thereby destroying “capitalism.” We spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost more than 50,000 American lives in that war, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese solders and civilians killed in that bloodbath.

The list of unrewarding and questionably justified wars that our nation has been embroiled in is long and unfamiliar to the average citizen. The cost of those wars is, however, painfully evident to even the lowest paid worker.  When it comes to war, America spares no expense.

A few days ago, the Biden Administration announced that our country had suffered more than 500,000 casualties as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. I suspect that the true number is substantially higher, since the statistics generated by some states’ governments, like Florida, have been difficult to corroborate. Even if the death count is accurate, the 500,000 number does not include the permanently disabled.  In effect, millions of Americans have been killed or crippled by this virus.

President Biden accurately noted that 500,000 is more than the deaths suffered by our country in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam war combined.  Additionally, those war-time casualties occurred over the course of years.  Covid-19 has been killing Americans for 11 months.

In addition to launching wars against nations or terrorist groups, our nation routinely decrees wars against national problems. We have had the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, and the like. The obvious difference between wars in which bullets and bombs are used and those in which changes in national policy are required is the amount our government is willing to pay to get “victory.” Our government writes blank checks for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other nations.  When it declares war on a pandemic, it is much more frugal.

Congress is considering a bill euphemistically referred to as a “Stimulus Package.”  It is more appropriately labelled a “Survival Kit.” The Congress has changed little in its composition since it approved a trillion dollar tax cut that benefited few outside the top 1% of wealth holders and it allowed trillions of dollars in “pandemic relief” that was often diverted to those in no need of relief.

As millions of Americans face eviction, food shortages, and protracted unemployment, this Congress has suddenly realized that it is not paying for bullets or bombs. It is actually being asked to help Americans survive the worst health crisis they have faced in more than a century. They are being asked to wage a war that saves lives.  To a physician like myself, the only question left to discuss is, “How quickly can we get this done?”

There are physicians in Congress, but apparently they are not physicians like myself. Many of the nonphysicians in Congress are multimillionaires who pay little or no federal taxes because of exemptions they have lobbied for or introduced into laws they have personally written, but they balk at giving $1,400 of taxpayer money to families making less than $70,000 annually and to extending unemployment insurance to those who lost their jobs because of this pandemic.  If this survival kit is approved in entirety, it may cost as much as $1.9 trillion.  That is an unimaginable sum of money, but without it the cost to our country will be substantially more.

This Congress had the opportunity to adopt a war-time strategy to avoid the devastation this virus has wrought on our country, and it failed.  We were assured by legislators and the former president himself that this would go away in a few months, that it was like the flu, and no special interventions were warranted. They were horribly wrong, and we are paying for their stupidity. 

The war on Covid-19 may well be the most expensive war we have ever engaged in and it has already claimed more casualties than any other war we fought in, but it must be won. This war requires a blank check and an unprecedent level of oversight.  There can be no war profiteering. There can be no pandering to self-interests. There can be no loopholes that allow the top 1% of wealth holders to exempt themselves from the cost of success and reconstruction.

If we succeed in controlling this plague, we must learn from the mistakes made over the past few years, and those mistakes have been numerous. If we fail this time or the next, our entire social structure is likely to collapse. Desperate for relief from the nightmare of the pandemic, with its associated poverty, hunger, homelessness, and unemployment, our fellow Americans may succumb to a narcissistic, autocratic despot. It has happened before when societies have faced longstanding crises. The American Dream, already so difficult to achieve for so many, will be a fable we tell our grandchildren about.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.