N.M. Rep. Gregg Schmedes

“First, do no harm.”

It’s a saying almost as old as the idea of medicine itself. New Mexico’s leaders need to think long and hard about it now.

At the beginning of our fight with COVID-19, our leaders acted quickly on limited information. But now, we have better data and experience that beg a more sophisticated approach as our nation grapples with balancing public health and the economy.

There’s another saying: “The cure must not be more deadly than the disease.”

The more we delay reopening, the more lives we endanger. Domestic violence has drastically increased in Albuquerque, as reported by Second Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez and the Domestic Violence Resource Center.

New Mexico is second in the country for suicides per capita. We are vulnerable to increased unemployment and poverty rates, factors intimately associated with suicide.

Those advocating for earlier business reopening have been called a “death cult” by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s spokesman. Yet, on April 16, the U.N. warned that the economic downturn would cause tens of millions to fall into extreme poverty and that hundreds of thousands of children could die.

People die from poverty. There is a well-documented relationship between poverty and disease.

But advocates for later reopening don’t seem to appreciate that a robust economy saves lives every day. They argue that those who discuss economics don’t value human life.

What began as “slowing the spread” has morphed into the argument that we should all stay home until a cure is found. That, I’m afraid, is not only an unreasonable mentality, but also a fundamentally dangerous one.

Experts agree the number of Americans who will contract COVID-19 won’t change. The virus will run its course.

Slowing the spread was never supposed to be a way to prevent transmission entirely, or to shut down the nation for 18 months or more to find a vaccine. It was to make sure hospitals could keep up.

Clearly, New Mexico’s hospitals are dealing with the demand just fine.

We all agree human life is precious. We should take every reasonable measure to protect life.

What we have to deliberate about is what is reasonable.

Is it reasonable to ask people to give up careers to lower the possibility of overwhelming a hospital?

We hate the loss of control.

Perhaps the most well-respected infectious disease doctor in the world, Paul Farmer, said, “We know that the risk of acquiring HIV does not depend on knowledge of how the virus is transmitted, but rather on the freedom to make decisions. Poverty is the great limiting factor of freedom.”

This principle is impacting the Navajo Nation, disproportionately affected by COVID.

Our leaders should pay attention to the massive death toll that economic devastation and closure of our health-care system takes on society at large. If our society were a patient, the doctor in me says we need to treat the whole patient, not just one symptom.

Re-opening businesses and our health-care system shouldn’t be viewed as devaluing human life. It should be seen as an act of love.

(N.M. Rep. Gregg Schmedes, a Republican, represents District 22, which includes a portion of Sandoval County. He is a surgeon, clinical assistant professor of surgery with the University of New Mexico and the New Mexico director of the American Academy of Medical Ethics.)