“Flatten the Curve” Movement Makes the Case Against Universal Health Care

After officially being forced to practice social distancing and stay inside our houses for over a month now, at this point some of us might have realized a couple of things: spouses can be rather annoying, and we miss going to work more than we thought we did. Although I’m sure you might be desperate for some good tips on how to successfully homeschool your kids or how to cope with your partner bossing you around all the time while balancing pantless videoconferences, this article aims to highlight the hardest truth for many Americans. The “flatten the curve” movement some people have been so eloquently advocating for, ultimately means only one thing: health care is not a human right.

As soon as COVID-19 hit the US, the first thing we witnessed was an authoritative government imposing a plethora of draconian regulations upon a scared and misinformed society such as business shutdowns and “stay home” orders.

The alleged goal of these abhorrently obscene measures was to help prevent the virus from spreading and consequently overcrowding hospitals with people infected with coronavirus. However, here is a serious question we should all be asking ourselves: if health care is a human right just like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then why should we bother to flatten the curve in order to help maximize the health care capacity? Did we, all of a sudden, realize that medical care does not exist in infinite supply to save the lives and health of everyone on the planet? How can someone be denied treatment, and on what basis? Could governments all of a sudden declare that cancer patients must suffer a delay in treatment due to the COVID-19 crisis? Could lupus patients suffer a shortage in the supply of their medication because it is being used to treat people with coronavirus?

If you believe that something is a human right, whatever it is must be innately and immediately exercisable, applicable, and enforceable to every individual, regardless of other variables or conditions that individual may be facing.

When hospitals (and government through its pandemic health care protocols) start prioritizing who gets treatment and who doesn’t, or sometimes who gets to live and who gets to die, it is only showing us that they cannot treat or save everyone at the same time, and therefore, it is rather hypocritical and an outright misconception to label health care services as a human right.

If you were to still insist on defining medical services as a human right, then logics would be forced to pose the following question to all the “Medicare for All” lovers out there: how can deciding who lives and who dies ever constitute the definition of a human right?

The truth is that the coronavirus outbreak is egregiously wreaking havoc wherever it reaches, but something we all should understand is that calling a product or a service a “human right” does not magically render it immune to scarcity. If there is one trustworthy information amidst the COVID-19 outbreak that we all can absolutely rely on, it’s that health care is not a right and government cannot save everyone.

During this pandemic, Italy, perhaps, is the first country to both witness and show the world that health care is a scarce resource. The Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care (SIAARTI) has published guidelines for the criteria that doctors and nurses should abide by as these already extraordinary circumstances critically worsen.

The document begins by likening the moral choices Italian doctors may face to the forms of wartime triage that are required in the field of “catastrophe medicine.” Instead of providing intensive care to all patients who need it, the authors suggest that it may become necessary to follow “the most widely shared criteria regarding distributive justice and the appropriate allocation of limited health resources,” which is really just a euphemism for allocating resources to whoever has the better survivability rate as a patient, and as a consequence, denying treatment to those who are less likely to survive, and you’d be right if you guessed that Italy has a National Health Care Service (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) with “universal” coverage, which, all of a sudden, seems to not be so universal anymore.

On March 16, the US also published a similar document with guidelines to provide instructions to health care institutions and workers about the ethical procedures in times of a pandemic. The Hastings Center published the “Ethical Framework for Health Care Institutions and Guidelines for Ethics Services Responding to the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic,” detailing three ethical duties for health care leaders: 1) duty to plan; 2) duty to safeguard; and 3) duty to guide. The report also contains a compilation of materials on resource and ventilator allocation.

However ethically appealing these documents may sound, ultimately, they only represent a euphemistic way of saying that health care resources are scarce, therefore hospitals and doctors should use them rationally because there will not be enough resources for every patient, especially if you consider the need for medical services for other pathologies on top of COVID-19.

If health care is a human right as some allege it is, how can a country with “universal” health care (Italy) so blatantly disregard such right by choosing who gets medical help and who does not? One thing we all must understand about rights is that they are inalienable, inviolable, and immediately exercisable, meaning that no country has the right to obliterate the life and liberty of its individuals, even during a pandemic. Thus, when a country decides to practice medical utilitarianism by choosing who dies and who lives based on a variable that only considers the maximization of utility regarding a human life, it unequivocally proves us two things: 1) health care is a service and; 2) drugs are goods; all subdued to the rationality of supply and demand, whether we like it or not.

What “Flattening the Curve” Truly Means

In case you have not seen it, the graph below became one the most popular graphs circulating on social media lately and it shows us two analyses. The first parabola (the one in an upside down “U” shape) gives us the information of an uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19, meaning no human action taken to reduce the spread of the disease. The second parabola (the one in a smaller upside down “U” shape) gives us the information of how the disease outbreak would react if we had taken measures to reduce the virus outbreak. Now, starting on the axial y and projecting itself horizontally along with axial x, we can see a line that represents the healthcare system capacity, as displayed in the graph below:

So yes, flattening the first curve on the aforementioned graph is important and there is a plethora of ways to achieve that goal. Compulsory social distancing and forcefully shutting businesses down are not only immoral measures, but they are also economically counterproductive.

If you take a gander at this graph, you will see that it mentions the expression “health care capacity,” as it shows a line that represents that capacity. It is worth taking note that a right does not have a capacity of applicability because a genuine right is unrestrictedly and ubiquitously applicable to everyone, whatever the circumstance may be. Therefore, when the variable taken into consideration has any form of restriction, it means that it is either a product or a service, but certainly not a right.

When we solely advocate for a government-driven compelled social isolation as the only way to stop the virus from spreading, we are indirectly trying to exercise a right we don’t have by supporting measures that will destroy the right of individuals to gather peacefully and at their own risk.

When we reproduce the speech “stay home, help flatten the curve” we are automatically admitting that the reason for asking government to keep people confined in their own houses is to help prevent hospitals from overcrowding. This notion only confirms the very idea of this article: health care is not a human right, because if it was, then there would be no logical point telling people to stay home, since a right is something innately, immediately, and unrestrictedly exercisable.

Before you develop a deranged reaction towards this undeniable truth, it becomes highly important to understand that there are no simple solutions or magical approaches to a multidimensional problem such as COVID-19. Voluntary self-isolation might be a game changer at the end of the day, but it is not the only solution to the problem. As a matter of fact, the places that have had better results in fighting COVID-19 such as South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Sweden were not driven by panic and extremely authoritative measures. Those countries are trying to preserve an open society as much as they can, without putting people at unnecessary risk, simply because they realized something that perhaps we didn’t: lockdowns, business shutdowns, and stay-home orders are not the only answers or the most effective ones.

How Else Do We Flatten That Curve?

Many variables should be considered when analyzing ways to flatten the curve in order to help maximize the health care capacity. The use and massive production of gloves, masks, and hand sanitizers, working from home (in applicable cases), physical distancing (which is different than social isolation), drive-through tests with quick results, publicly informing individuals about areas that are heavily infected and widespread disinfecting of those areas, the use of off-label drug prescriptions by informed patients or prophylactically by the front liners (doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, etc.), the maximization in the production of ventilators, the debureaucratization of laws that prevent doctors from working in a different state than where he is professionally registered or laws that prevent clinical trials with well-known drugs in informed patients, the construction of more hospitals (by private capital), and possibly other measures that our human minds cannot imagine.

All these measures would impact that curve drastically while preserving an open and functional society, thus, avoiding an economic collapse that will bring catastrophic social and economic outcomes to everyone, more so to some than others. As a matter of fact, society cannot be locked for too long and it is likely that all of us will get back to our normal lives while the pandemic is still going. So, the argument that city lockdowns, obligatory social-isolation, and business shutdowns were the only (or the most effective) options to flatten the curve is inaccurate as it mostly disregards the main consequence of killing society—a communal downfall, where prosperity gets shattered while government increases its powers under the excuse of security.

Only Markets Can Truly Maximize Health Care (and Make it Affordable)

At this point, after witnessing all the shortages and the lack of capacity of hospitals to treat all patients across the world, one fact is simply undeniable: universal “free” health care is an unachievable goal because scarcity is a natural consequence of life that prevents everyone from having everything always available for every human necessity. This is obviously applicable to the health care system, as it took only one pandemic to make people hysterically shout “stay home” as a type of relief for hospitals.

If health care is not a right and we cannot keep individuals locked up inside their own houses and shut down businesses indefinitely (because it is immoral and economically counterproductive), what else could possibly be done to help society fight the COVID-19? Make government get out of the way with its nonsensical bureaucracy and let the free market work.

Free markets are the only reliable source of goods and services because its main focus is not to get reelected, but to please customers in order to achieve a profitable interaction with each individual and their corresponding needs and wants, and in return, we get what we need. Government, however, can merely dictate and enforce laws authoritatively against individuals or businesses, but it can never plan an entire market and economy that would give everyone everything.

As soon as the pandemic became a reality, many companies stepped up and ramped up their production in order to try to meet the demand of goods and services due to the COVID-19 outbreak. As a matter of fact, some companies even stepping out of their field to try to help society against the consequences of the pandemic.

If we look at the scenario we are currently facing, while government has made us inmates inside our own houses, the free market has worked unstoppably in order to provides us with all the material goods we need. So, the less centralized power we have dictating “what we must do or else,” the better and safer society will be.

Letting medical businesses thrive, more hospitals be built, less regulations on the medical field, well-informed and voluntary choices to trial treatments, less bureaucracy on how to access medical services and which drugs a patient can use or not, thus allowing individuals to take back the autonomy to make decisions about their own medical circumstances are way better options to maximize health care and slowly reduce the cost of such services to the public.

A perfect example that proves the free market is a morally and economically superior method to fight costly services than government bureaucracy is the idea that Uber and Lyft may enter the ambulance services as competitors. It should have a considerable positive impact on helping reduce the cost of ambulance services at the same time it improves the quality and reduces prices. As a matter of fact, the existence of ridesharing in a city has reduced ambulance use by 7 percent already, which possibly will ultimately reduce the overall cost of ambulance services because the demand may drastically decrease at some point in the future. The same idea is valid for all medical services. The more individuals engaging in the health care market, the more affordable it becomes, especially if government is out of the way.

So if we ever live through another pandemic in our lifetime, we should understand that instead of echoing authoritative governmental orders (such as “stay home”), perhaps we should trust the only system that truly worked unstoppably to help save us, keep us healthy, and satisfy our needs during this pandemic—the free market.

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Helio Flanagan Veiga

Brazilian professor and researcher in the interdisciplinary areas of Law, Political Science, and Economics. Member of the Libertarian Party and the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Libertarian Activist. Founder of the Facebook page “O Libertário” (The Libertarian). Freedom lover.

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