When President Trump held his White House coronavirus press briefing on March 13, I sat through it feeling a bit confused. He had just declared a national emergency. States were starting to announce shutdowns. He introduced us to Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, then paraded half a dozen CEOs of companies—Walgreens, Target, Walmart, and others—to tell us all about how the private sector was going to play a role in protecting us during this pandemic.
My confusion revolved around this "private sector" bit and appears to have been well-founded, since the plans and promises made during that press conference didn't come to fruition. The copious, nationwide drive-thru testing sites, and the website telling us where we could tested still haven't materialized more than two months later.
But the part of that press briefing that baffled me the most was this image. Here is Dr. Birx holding up a poster titled "CORONAVIRUS TESTING." It's a bit hard to see in the screenshot, but the subtitle below it reads: "New Options for Consumers."
If anyone knows the story behind the flowchart used by the White House to explain a website that apparently doesn't… https://t.co/HeYhRpdn1O— Caitlin Kelly (@Caitlin Kelly) 1584150991.0
Consumers. My mouth dropped open when I saw this on my TV screen. This is a doctor on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, whose job is to inform the public about the medical aspects of the pandemic on behalf of the U.S. government. And she's standing on the White House lawn, surrounded by CEOs, holding up a sign that refers to potentially ill Americans as "consumers"? Seriously?
I thought for sure there would be an uproar over it, but the wording on the poster didn't even make a blip in the news. Was it just subtle enough that people didn't notice? Or have we become so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as consumers that it didn't even cross people's minds to be bothered by it?
Then, this week, it happened again. White House adviser and economist Kevin Hassett said on CNN, "Our capital stock hasn't been destroyed. Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work..."
Aaron Ruper pointed out the phrase on Twitter with the hashtag #humancapitalstock.
Uh oh someone said the quiet part out loud https://t.co/WusWOQX7XO— Jared Holt (@Jared Holt) 1590442204.0
Now, some might say it's an overreaction to be offended by these references to the American people, but I don't think so. Again, we are in the middle of an actual pandemic. Human lives—parents, children, loved ones—have been lost on our soil on a massive scale over the past few months. Yes, people's economic lives have been upended as well, but that doesn't reduce people to being "human capital." Yes, the economy relies on people spending money, but that doesn't reduce people to being mainly "consumers." We are human beings first. Forever and always.
Especially in messaging coming from our American government—which is supposed to be "of the people, by the people, for the people"—our identity as human beings should always remain front and center. Hearing that the government sees us as consumers and human capital stock is a clear sign of how enmeshed our government has become with unbridled capitalism. And it's gross, frankly.
My value as an American lies not in what I contribute to the economy, but what I contribute to the heart and soul of our nation. It's in how I treat my neighbor. It's in how I care for my family and my community. It's in how I participate in our democratic processes. It's in how I represent the values my country is supposed to hold dear. The fact that I make money and spend money is totally ancillary to the core of my being. When we place people's economic identity—as if there really even were such a thing—at the forefront, we become numbers in a calculation instead of human beings with unique contributions to make to the world.
This really doesn't need to be difficult. Dr. Birx's sign should have read "New Testing Options for Americans," not "Consumers." Kevin Hassett should have said "The American people are ready to get back to work," not "Our human capital stock..." It's just that simple.
While there are legitimate debates to be had over how and when to get the economy moving during this pandemic, let's agree not to refer to human lives as merely cogs in the wheel of our economic system. Even if there's a sad element of truth to that picture, we don't have to tacitly accept and perpetuate it by choosing to refer to people in such inhuman terms.
We are human beings—first, foremost and always. Let's not let anyone make us forget that.
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