It's bad enough that most Americans think that 40,000 road deaths a year is just the price we pay for the freedom to go wherever we want whenever we want — but now that argument is being used by conservatives who want to abandon the health practices that can help us defeat the coronavirus.
President Trump was the latest Republican to trot out the argument that we may simply have to let vulnerable people die from COVID-19 so we don't completely devastate our economy — and he did so by linking it to the falsity that traffic deaths are just the cost of keeping capitalism moving.
"And you look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers [of potential COVID-19 deaths] we’re talking about," the president said at his March 23 press briefing. "That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody no more driving of cars. We have to do things to get our country open."
Trump's comment followed an equally jaw-droppingly callous statement by Wisconsin Senator and Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson a week earlier.
"We don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways," told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 18 in a discussion about the impact of coronavirus on the national economy. "It’s a risk we accept so we can move about."
Neither lawmaker mentioned the risks the federal government took with our national public health by failing to act on COVID-19 in the days when it still could have been contained. And of course, they didn't mention the risks we force Americans to take every single day by subsidizing an autocentric road network that we know kills people.
And it's not just electeds who are piling on. Republican-leaning ABC News pundit Matthew Dowd also compared coronavirus deaths to road deaths. (Real talk: why does it seem that this narrative is almost entirely coming from the right?)
Even when they're not comparing COVID-19 deaths to road deaths, the GOP has a weird way of demanding human sacrifice on the altar of capitalism.
Okay, take a breath and let the rage subside.
Now, take a moment to remind a friend of this simple truth: traffic deaths, like COVID-19, are public health emergencies that we can and must reverse.
Yes: when we take too long to act on a public health crisis — as the U.S. arguably did with the novel coronavirus, and as the U.S. definitely did in the nearly 100 years that we've allowed car culture to become increasingly entrenched in our lives — it is expensive and difficult to undo the damage that's already been caused.
We know what solves the COVID-19 crisis — social distancing — just as we know what can solve road deaths. But just because the right is already chafing at doing the former doesn't mean we should let anyone get away with accepting 40,000 fatalities a year on American roads.
Especially since, as the smartest urban economists have argued for years, it would help the planet's long-term economic future if we reduced the power of the auto-industrial complex and pivoted to building infrastructure for sustainable transportation. Yes, that infrastructure will be less immediately profitable for our places. But in the long term, it will make our cities richer and more resilient.
But even if you're not in the mood to try to wrap your head around the long-term implications of COVID-19 on our economy, please remember this: