COMMENTARY: A Faustian bargain

The United States has 4% of the world’s population. We have 25% of the worlds COVID-19 infections.

We have averaged more than 1,000 deaths every day since the novel coronavirus was identified in February. In six months, more people have died from this virus than died in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

I blame Dr. Anthony Faust.

Faust is the story of a man who makes a deal with the Devil and comes to regret it. (We all do.) This story has been around, whether as a folk tale, opera or epic morality play, since the 16th century. It’s form changes to reflect the worst fears and best hopes of the people in each era, but the outline stays the same. In each case a successful and gifted man wants more from life. Dr. Faust is a much-favored man who simply can’t let well-enough alone.

In steps the Devil. Faust gets his personal and gratifying reality, but the Devil gets his soul.

Faust thinks he has made his diabolical deal with eyes wide open, but every time he finds that what he thought was happiness turns out to be much less than that. No one makes a deal with the Devil and wins. And that brings us back to America and COVID-19.

Every time I hear someone say (either sanctimoniously or sincerely) that you can’t put a price on human life, the economist in me bubbles up to the surface at a full boil. The fact is, we put a price on human life all the time. For example, each year we kill around 600 people in car-train crashes.

Every one of these deaths could be eliminated if we built overpasses over every single train-road crossing in this country. Why don’t we? The answer is obvious: We do not believe that the cost of these overpasses is worth the 600 people. We have put a price on human life. You can call it a cost/benefit analysis or a Faustian bargain, but that is exactly what has happened.

From the beginning, this nation has made a Faustian bargain with COVID-19. At first the virus was hitting the elderly and we decided they were expendable. Then it started hitting the late-middle aged with comorbidities that made them vulnerable. Again, we decided they were expendable. The novel coronavirus seemed to be particularly devastating to communities of color, despite their age or health. They too were expendable. We have also found that children of color are much more likely to have painful and deadly reactions to the virus. Evidently, they are expendable, too.

Right now, 80% of COVID deaths are over age 65. Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to die. We, as a society, have decided that all these people are expendable because we want the world that way it was in November of 2019. We have made a deal with the devil named COVID. It can kill the people we see as disposable so our lives can come back to the “normal” we crave.

The Devil always has a hidden clause in every contract. What he has not told those who think we can afford to lose the old, the ill and the brown is that a virus always goes for the low-hanging fruit. When this virus has burned through its current targets it will go after the rest of us. Viruses mutate at exponential rates. They find a way to survive. None of us are immune.

When you dance with the Devil you never call the tune. I suggest you keep the faith.

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in Edinburg. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.