The secret of The Little Prince’s fox takes on a new aspect in the age of the virus: “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
The invisible coronavirus is essential, in its way: We can reorganize our society to mitigate its effects, and perhaps even drive it to obsolescence through vaccination, but, unlike the fox, we cannot tame it. It is therefore essential also in the sense that we cannot now conceive of and analyze our society without it. The bare fact of the virus has effected other bare facts: radical changes to habits, a massive economic shock, millions of early deaths
Of course, this kind of “essential” is not what Antoine de Saint Exupéry had in mind when he gave those words to his fox. But it is important to acknowledge that what is essential to the flourishing of individuals and families and civilizations — those invisible ties of kinship and friendship and love — must interact with other essential realities. Sometimes, as I wrote back in late March about my own children’s visits to their great-grandmother, precisely that which is life-giving also threatens to bring death.
The question of what habits and institutions have been essential enough to be maintained through the pandemic has been at the heart of most of the rancor over public health policy, even though it’s rarely been addressed directly. Where we strike the balance between sociality and sterility, between liberty and public health, between living and not-dying depends in large part on what we consider essential to living — and dying — well. The debate over the prioritization of coronavirus vaccines, however, has brought the question of essentialness to center stage.
Through all of the very serious disagreements over the pandemic and the mitigation measures, there has been one point of near-consensus: Anything that is genuinely essential to our society is economic, or at least must be justified in economic terms. Early in the pandemic, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick infamously said:
No one reached out to me and said, “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.
The “America that all America loves” referred primarily to the ability to satiate every desire through the marketplace as quickly as possible, thus greasing the gears of our perpetual-motion economy. This, according Patrick, was essential enough to die for.
But the focus on the economy has not been exclusive to free-marketers and conservatives: In the discussion over the vaccine rollout, many liberals have been arguing that “essential workers” should have priority over the elderly. A New York Times report on this debate in early December discussed whether or not teachers, for example, are essential to the workforce — rather than whether they are essential, say, because of their relationships of trust and mentorship with young people.
A blessed exception was Marc Perrone of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, who despite his knowledge of the plight of workers dissented from the liberal consensus: “Everybody’s got a grandmother or grandfather. And I do believe almost everybody in this country would want to protect them, or their aging parents.” Here we see an acknowledgment of what is invisible to the eyes of homo economicus: relationships of care and trust and love that are not defined by contracts and terms and conditions. Earlier in The Little Prince, the fox explains:
People haven’t time to learn anything. They buy things ready-made in stores. But since there are no stores where you can buy friends, people no longer have friends.
Friends — and the maintenance of family ties, for that matter — require work, vulnerability, and risk.
We can see what we, as a society, consider to be essential not just from the words we use to describe relationships, but from which relationships we treat as worth taking risks for — and as worth protecting first through vaccination. Giving the shot first to health care workers makes sense, of course, as does giving some priority to those who take on extra risks to provide the kind of frontline metabolic services that keep communities fed and clean and connected: grocery store workers, garbage collectors, mail carriers, and so on. But are, as the federal government’s categorization has it, nearly seventy percent of America’s workers essential in this way? Or even the forty percent categorized as “frontline”? Clearly they are not.
As the Times piece shows, “bill and account collectors,” “financial managers,” “compliance officers,” and other greasers of the perpetual-motion economy are considered to be as essential as food distribution and sanitation, and more essential than grandparents visiting their grandchildren, or than the elderly and otherwise vulnerable spending time with anybody but members of their household and care workers. The prevailing view among our experts and ethicists turns the fox on his head: That which cannot be seen and studied and measured cannot be essential. Therefore they breezily say that the elderly can wait to see their grandchildren, while implying that Wells Fargo and Visa and Amazon cannot wait to return to having a reliably uninfectable and interchangeable workforce. And if those grandparents die or decline in isolation in the meantime, then they can be assured they were martyrs for someone’s view of America.
“‘Anything essential is invisible to the eyes,’ the little prince repeated.” The fox replied, “C’est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante”: “It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important.” But perdu is a stronger word: It’s the time you “lost,” or, in an older translation, “wasted.” The eyes of homo economicus can see the coronavirus clearly, but the good of time with family and friends across the generations — unmeasurable, unquantifiable, unprofitable — is invisible. It is a waste.
Giving the elderly priority in vaccination doesn’t just minimize the lives lost due to the virus; it minimizes the life lost — the presence, the touching, the talking, the play that is essential to flourishing. And as a public policy, it brings the reality of that essentialness into public view. Because, in truth, I have a bone to pick with Saint Exupéry and his fox: While the love and trust that is essential to being human are invisible, the way they are lived out is not, and a humane vaccine policy will recognize that fact.
The New Atlantis is building a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.
Visiting Grandparents Is Essential