How much is a human life worth? Societal divides in a capitalist pandemic

How much is a human life worth? Susan asked me at the bus stop. We had just taken each of our children to kindergarten, and were waiting for the bus to take us to our respective workplaces. Bianca and I decided to move back to Switzerland for Lele to attend Kindergarten in German, the language he is most familiar with. And because the idea of another hard lockdown in Italy was terrifying to the point that we accepted to barter everything that Italy had given us (sun, sea, good food) for the freedom promised by hyper liberal Switzerland. How much is a human life worth? Susan asked again. We were talking about the restrictions that the pandemic has brought to all of us. As we entered the bus and found an empty seat, she expressed her anger about the social distancing measures during the pandemic: should we restrict social contact to protect the elderly from disease? Isn’t there a limit to people’s right to live? Shouldn’t we accept that life ends at some point. It is normal to die, right? There needs to be a societal debate about this.

I was not sure I agreed with her. There was something hyper individualistic in her mode of reasoning that disturbed me. Of course, I had written (also in this blog) about the apparatuses of control and discipline put in place to govern the pandemic. But in doing so I was trying to argue for forms of social and economic solidarity which disrupt the hyper individualisation of our societies. At some point we need to let them go, right?, she continued. I tried to stop the conversation by looking at my phone, sending text messages in order to look distracted. But Susan persisted. I mean isn’t it egoistic to want to live at the costs of others? They lived their life, now they need to let us live ours. As a society we need to speak about this. We cannot delegate this to political authorities, Susan explained. In Switzerland, the voting population is asked to decide on almost everything – on building towers in the city-centre, the extension of holidays from four to five weeks, minimum wage, paternity leave, the ban of burkas, the illegalisation of minarets, the abolishment of immigration, the ban of nuclear power stations, free childcare. So for Susan, the intervention of authorities in a citizen’s private sphere – their ability to move, gather, consume, interact, work – was an anomaly. We live under a dictatorship, she insisted before I left the bus. There needs to be a discussion. How much is a human life worth?

It was not the first time I had heard somebody ask this question about the value of life. In one of the many doctoral seminars I had to attend during graduate school, ten years before the pandemic broke out, one of my peers doing his PhD in another discipline – insurance studies – was asking exactly this question: How much is a human life worth? Tim’s doctoral research focused on developing a formula to calculate (with precision) the monetary value of a person’s life. At what point should we turn off the life-support machine? At what point should insurance companies, the state, and we as a community, decide that it’s not financially sustainable to treat you further? I don’t remember the exact formula, nor the exact monetary value he gave to people’s lives, but what I do remember is that the calculation Tim was proposing was informed by a cost/benefit ratio which tried to find the right balance between an individual’s personal interest in pursuing life, the quality of life that a given investment would lead to, and the social and economic cost/benefit of such an investment.

I reacted with anger and rage. I boiled. I considered Tim’s purposes to be unacceptable and cynical. Life can’t be monetarised. I shouted. The value of life can’t be calculated, I shouted again. We should refuse to think in those terms. Tim looked at me with a smile of someone who knew better, calm in the face of my anger. The state can’t pay for our egoistic wish to live eternally, he explained. It is a difficult conversation to have, but a mature community needs to be able to address this question in a rational way. How much is a human life worth? What at the time seemed to me a crazy and far-fetched idea, has become our reality. It was the very question that Susan was asking too. She was not advocating for a formula to calculate the monetary value of a persons’ life, her points were not financial. But there was something deeper that linked both Tim and Susan’s mode of reasoning about the value of human life: namely the idea that people live at society’s cost, and that therefore it is society’s right to define at what point someone’s willingness to live is sustainable or not, and therefore worthy of societal consideration and support.

Even back in Italy, which we left in fear of another full-scale lockdown, Tim and Susan’s line of thinking is very present. Giovanni Toti, the governor of the region of Liguria in Italy, announced his intent to reopen the region because, according to him, elderly people are not important for Italy’s productive effort; everything had to be reopened independently of the risks that this would represent for them and their lives. I was at my parents’ for Sunday lunch when we saw the news. I could listen only with one ear, as with the other, I was listening to my mother’s phone call trying to receive information about my grandmother’s health. What a surreal situation. I could see from my mothers’ facial expression that nonna Lucia’s conditions had worsened, while observing political leaders on TV justifying the necessity for human sacrifice.

I was very close to my nonna. When I was a child she used to commute between Southern Italy and Basel in Switzerland to take care of me in the first three years of my life, when my parents were employed in full time jobs. She would spend time with me, keep me busy, feed me, wash me, console me, dress me, educate me, and take care of my needs. When my younger brother was born, she took me to Italy, where I stayed with her for several months while my parents were busy managing work and their new baby. My nonna, in contradiction to Giovanni Toti’s announcement, was crucial for my parents’, and my own, future productive efforts.

Me and my nonna (in shorts and the black dress)

Nonna had been infected with COVID-19 from my aunt, who had been taking care of my nonna in Italy after the Swiss authorities threatened to expulse my nonna from my parents’ home in Switzerland. While as an academic I have the privilege to move across Europe and chose where I want to live, freedom of movement is not for everybody, even for European citizens such as nonna Lucia. According to Swiss legislation, the right to settle in Switzerland (and in her case to live close to relatives who could return the favour of taking care of her) is dependent on whether nonna could show that she could sustain herself financially in this new country, which she could obviously not, given the minimal pension she received in Italy. Nor did they consider my parents wealthy enough to take charge of an additional household member. My nonna, aged 81, was therefore forced to move in with my aunt who was a key worker in the pandemic.  My aunt works as a cook in an elderly home where together with most workers and residents she got infected by COVID-19. In spite of the strict measures implemented by the institution, preventing any unauthorized access to the facility, the virus had smuggled itself into the building with devasting effects. The little apartment rented by my aunt (housing herself, her mum, and her two unemployed daughters) was not sufficiently big for the four of them to self-isolate, causing all of them to get infected.

Initially my aunt and my two cousins took care of my nonna, taking shifts to provide her with the necessary support she needed as her condition worsened. It took a month after her infection for a local hospital to find a free bed for her to get the care she needed. In the acute phase of the pandemic, elderly people in Italy were not prioritised for places in the national health system, available beds had to be given to people with real chances to survive. When the ambulance came to pick her up, it was both a tragedy and a relief for my aunt and cousin. The fatigue of caring for a loved one while suffering from heavy symptoms themselves had been immense. At the same time, knowing that this would probably be the last time they would see her made this moment particularly dramatic. I remember how we all trembled when watching the video recording my cousin had sent us of the moment my nonna was put in the ambulance by the medical staff.    

My nonna had meant so much for us. It was so painful to realise that many of us, including myself, had considered her life and the life of other people in her situation as not in need of protection. My own freedom was too important to me. Our freedom had become too important to the Italian state apparatus (and of other countries in the world) who preferenced the reopening of social and economic life over the protection of a generation of elderly people. When she died on January first of this year, I felt only pain and anger. Pain for the loss of one of the people who had meant most to me, and anger for an unequal society that prioritises our own egoisms and individualism over the necessity to protect the most vulnerable individuals in our communities —an unequal society that my decisions and actions I had contributed to shape, justify, even normalise. 

This anger and sadness made me want to avoid conversation with anyone that I suspected to be critical of the measures implemented to break the transmission of the virus. Yet I caught myself again and again arguing with friends and colleagues about our collective responsibility to secure the life of vulnerable people despite our pressing desire to get rid of social distancing measures and feel free. Such as that time when I was sitting in Alexy’s living room where he was showing me the forms that he was desperately trying to fill in to access the funds that the Swiss government had allocated to small businesses strongly affected by the crisis. Alexy’s desperation provided me with some answers to the question that at that point was like an obsession for me: why is this pandemic dividing our societies so much?

What about my life? What about my employees? He kept repeating. He had a little restaurant that had to close because of the containment measures. He had used all his financial reserves and was not able to pay his waiters salaries nor the rent that he was required to continue paying. The situation affected him so much emotionally and mentally that he had to be hospitalised twice in the local mental health ward in the last 12 months. While showing him the pile of documents that he had to gather in order to provide evidence for the legitimacy of his claim, I could see the desperation in his face; a facial expression which reminded me of my aunt’s in the last weeks of my grandmothers life when, strongly weakened herself by the virus, she cared for her dying mother. The desperate nature of the situation in which Alexy had ended up –  operating in a societal environment where people’s lives, the ability to sustain themselves and their loved ones, is dependent on the generation of income, on the ability to make money – seemed to make it impossible for him to think and feel about the devasting effects that the COVID-19 virus is having for other people around the world. It seemed capitalism, not the virus, was putting us one against the other.

And yet this could not be the only answer to the indifference about the COVID-19 deaths that I was seeing around me. Susan for example is not in Alexy’s situation – as a teacher in a public school her salary is guaranteed. As are many other people’s, who in Switzerland keep going to the streets to protest against the social distancing restrictions. While reading about these protest marches in a local newspaper and going through the statements that the journalists had collected from the protesting crowd, I was thinking that there must be something more deep, more cultural, that informed people’s perspective on social distancing and the protection of vulnerable lives. The way people in those articles voice their right to be free and justify society’s need to let people die (especially the most fragile) made me think of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural evolution and his idea that for the human species to reproduce and sustain itself, its weakest members need to be excluded or eradicated. Analysts of capitalism and current social inequalities have argued that Darwin’s theories have not remained an intellectual exercise. In the West we have built societies that are organised and structured around Darwin’s theories about natural selection and the eradication of its weak, unproductive members. We have created a world in which the survival of the fittest is the real normal.

It was one evening while riding back home, observing people sitting in overcrowded restaurants, that it became clear to me that my intuition about Darwin and his theories of the survival of the fittest are a good lens for understanding people’s persistent questions about the worth of life. In Switzerland, social distancing measures were reduced in May. Public life has reopened. People can again gather, meet in restaurants, go to museums, attend concerts, and sporting events. That evening, all the restaurants were full. I had never seen so many people in those restaurants.  Initially I assumed there was some special gathering – a wedding, or a huge birthday. But it was every restaurant. At some point I even thought that I had missed the start of the European football championships. But no, the Euros had not started yet. The play of shadows kept giving me the illusion of seeing people I had talked to, friends who had complained about the restrictions, about the egoisms of those who wanted to keep living despite having already lived a long life. I had never seen so much enthusiasm and joy de vivre in a protestant city in which controlling our expressions in public is a moral ethics which many of us almost instinctively align to. People’s laughing, the light in their eyes, their enjoyment and pleasure made me realise that the imperative of having to protect those of us who are most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 had not only, like in Alexy’s case, taken away the ability of some of us to sustain our livelihoods. For those, including myself, who have learned that consumption is existential for how we see and understand ourselves, the need to remain enclosed in our homes to protect people from infection had taken away from us the possibility to have pleasure, to desire, to long, to feel, and maybe more fundamentally to be who we are. Consumption is how we have come to understand what being a person means. In other words, taking care of the elderly generations and the most vulnerable in general has for some meant losing jobs, living more precarious lives, but for other, it has simply taken away our ability to be who we are. 

Darwin was right, because we have made him right. In the societies in which many of us live and that we have contributed to build, the fittest have to survive at the cost of those of us who we consider the weakest. This is maybe what Tim meant by a ‘mature society’. And this was also what Susan intended by a democratic society. Being mature, civilised, and democratic seems to mean being rational, calculative, where the weakest minority inevitably lose out. Despite the initial celebration of solidarity and community which was broadcasted on social media and TV, this pandemic seems to have amplified the Darwinian nature of capitalism. What the emerging generational divide seems to teach us is that for us to be who we want to be, to realise our capitalist selfhood, the weakest among us need to be eradicated, ignored, let die. It is not by chance that the obligation to use a mask in the public domain has created so much resistance in populations around the world. The mask hides the part of our body that we most associate with our own individuality. Is this the world we want to live in and have dreamt of? Initially people around the world proclaimed that we are all equal in this. It seems that as the pandemic has evolved to affect each of us personally, the capitalist structures which permeate all domains of social life, even our own sense of who we are and what we want to be,  have quickly cleared up the spectre of solidarity which many of us had seen emerging in the first months of this pandemic. The question, I think, is not How much is a human life worth? (a question that in itself is dictated by the rational capitalist system that we have learned to normalise), but rather whether, as a collective, we will be willing in the future to imagine and live forms of societal co-existence which allows us to take care of each other, to watch after the most vulnerable members of our societies. For the fittest, or those who consider themselves belonging to the fittest, this will require forms of renouncing that may force us to rethink who we are. I am sceptical but remain hopeful.

One Reply to “How much is a human life worth? Societal divides in a capitalist pandemic”

  1. I was thinking how painful this must be for you and Susan, as partners, embodying this particular division in a divided society…..marked by scarcity and panic….. who is to be thrown out of the life-boat, who will not get the vaccines? The ethical costs of each different existential choice (individual or collective)….


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