Push to quickly open the economy again can come at the cost of life

Push to quickly open the economy again can come at the cost of life

President Donald J. Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, attend a coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing Tuesday, March 24, 2020 in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House . (Officially The White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

March 26, 2020


WASHINGTON (AP) – The contrast could hardly be more stark. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that if all his sweeping, expensive measures to curb coronavirus saved a life, it would be worth it. President Donald Trump has a different view: The cost of closing the economy outweighs the benefits of often telling Americans that 35,000 people a year die from the common flu.

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While it may seem crass, the federal government has actually made a calculation for a long time when it introduced rules, called “the value of a statistical life” that put a price tag on human life. It has been used to consider whether seat belts, airbags or environmental regulations are required, but it has never been used in a broad public health context.

The question is now an urgent matter, as in recent days Trump has clung to the notion that the cure for the pandemic should be no worse than the disease, arguing that “more people will die if we let this continue” if the economy stays closed. He has targeted a return to a similarity to the normalcy of the economy before Easter Sunday, April 12.

Critics say he presents the nation with the wrong choice at a time when deaths and infections of the virus are growing.

“We will not accept the assumption that human life is available,” said Cuomo, whose condition has seen far more infections and deaths from COVID-19 than any other state. “And we won’t put a dollar on people’s lives.”

For decades, the federal government has made calculations of how policies designed to protect U.S. health could affect the economy. Since the Reagan administration, federal agencies have been required to conduct analysis on any proposed regulations that are expected to have $ 100 million or more in impact on the economy.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency performs cost-benefit analysis to estimate in dollars how much people are willing to pay for reductions in their risk of death due to adverse health conditions caused by pollution. The Transportation Department estimates the additional costs consumers would be willing to bear for security improvements at $ 9.6 million.

Now pushing when to reopen the economy during the coronavirus crisis is centered on a similarly bleak question: What is an economically acceptable death toll? Putting dollars on the value of life and health is uncomfortable in itself, said one expert.

“People hate that question,” said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, who served on the White House Council for Economic Advisors during the Obama administration. “By laying out the math in such a rough way, people get along when they see it.”

Days in his own call for Americans to devote 15 days to social distancing, including staying home from work and closing bars and restaurants to help try to stop the spread of the disease, Trump has changed his tune.

Trump has muttered that “our country was not built to be shut down” and promised not to allow “the cure to be worse than the problem.”

“LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our country closed for as long as possible in hopes that it will hurt my election success,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “The right people want to get back to work as quickly as possible. We will be stronger than ever! “

He also pushed back against suggestions that he will be cavalier with regard to the prospect of more deaths caused by an early opening of the economy. “How many deaths can be accepted?” Trump told reporters Wednesday night. “None.”

But Democrats say Trump prioritized the economy over Americans’ health and safety.

“I want to say, let’s get back to work next Friday,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. “It would be wonderful. But it cannot be arbitrary. “

Trump certainly has his defenders. Fox News commentator Britt Hume has called it a “perfectly reasonable view” that older Americans would be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the economy, and Texas Secretary of State Dan Patrick has said he is “all in” lifting social distance guidelines in to help the economy.

Mike Leavitt, a health and humanitarian secretary in the George W. Bush administration, said the fight against the virus is shaping up to be an “extremely local fight,” and communities may adjust as the crisis unfolds periodically.

“Each jurisdiction may not come to the same conclusion – because each jurisdiction may have different situations around shopping and business reopening,” Leavitt said in an email.

In the recent past, the government has also put a dollar on American life in the wake of man-made disasters, including the September 11 attacks and BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 and devastated the regional economy, to compensate the victims.

Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the victims’ funds stemming from these events, said the formula used in the nation’s courts was a simple entity: what would the victim have earned during their life at work but for the tragedy that took their lives? In addition, there was some extra compensation for pain and suffering and emotional distress, he said.

“It’s a pretty straightforward calculation,” Feinberg said.

But when it comes to the current pandemic, Feinberg said the impact calculation is not that simple.

“When someone says, ‘You know that the risk of the virus is not as great as the risk of everyone through a deteriorating economy,’ it’s a choice that everyone has to make,” Feinberg said.

In the case of the coronavirus crisis, some economists and policy experts say the pandemic continues to present to many unknowns to use the kind of cold-calculated, cost-benefit analysis that has been used to evaluate the impact of policies such as the federal highway and air quality rules.

“It does not help save the economy if a huge number of people have died or become ill and their lives are changed forever,” said Lisa Heinzerling, who struggled with the regulatory impact on the economy as head of the EPA’s policy office at the beginning of Obama administration.

Northwestern University economists Martin Eichenbaum and Sergio Rebelo and German economist Mathias Trabandt said in a working paper published this week that optimal containment efforts would lead to deeper economic damage and that the recession in the United States was inevitable. But economists also expected that maintaining social distance work within the U.S.

Going back from efforts to preserve human life in the midst of an event of this scale can also have a huge impact on the confidence of institutions for generations to come, said David Ropeik, a former risk communication instructor at Harvard School of Public Health,

“The benefit of a complete fight against a virus includes reassuring the public that the government is on their side. When fighting that battle, it is reasonable to question whether the government we have set up to protect ourselves from things like this crisis will do, “said Ropeik, author of the book” How Risky Is It Really? ? ”

“The loss of it to protect the economy undermines this belief. How can you price it? ” he asked.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up for two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with pre-existing health problems, it can cause more serious illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.