"Costs Of The Cure"
Updated: May 17, 2020
How is it that the country worst affected by the current pandemic has some of the most vocal support for ‘business as usual’? For the better part of a month, Trump and his allies in Congress have been repeatedly downplaying the threat this virus poses. What began as a tweet from an extremely active account, with far better things to do than keep their twitter updated during a global crisis, (I am referring to POTUS of course) stating:
Then came a flurry of support from the Republican base reaffirming this view (which I won’t get into here for the sake of time) and thus birthed the debate on whether it would be more devastating for the country to stay locked up or to reopen and just practice social distancing wherever they can. Now while this crisis affects countries worldwide, this article will address only arguments made in the United States as that is not only where this debate remains most prominent, but also because different countries have different intricacies that can’t be generalised to a single argument. At first sight, the question of the drastic impact on the economy is a valid one, yet is it even slightly moral to allow the lives of hundreds of thousands of people to be put directly at stake for the sake of economic health and avoiding a potential recession to rival the Great Depression.
Now most people claiming that keeping countries shut down will inevitably have a higher cost than reopening believe themselves to be justified from a utilitarian viewpoint. Rather than turning this into a history or philosophy lecture on utilitarianism, I’ll just provide a simple, widely accepted definition, the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. In the immortal words of Spock “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. And that’s precisely what utilitarianism seems to be right? Logical, rational and the right choice. If a few hundred thousand lives are put at stake for the sake of economic health (which indirectly affects millions more), that is a cost that must be paid and is therefore categorically right. Or is it?
Let’s engage with this Cost-Benefit Analysis which led to this conclusion. One can reasonably assume that the costs taken into account by parties advocating reopening the country would be costs to the state of keeping a country shut down (such as welfare plans and other development oriented policies), the dangerous threat of sickness and even death for the potential millions of people liable to contract the disease and the cost of the deaths of people who contract the disease due to lack of effective distancing measures. However, these parties feel that the benefits far outweigh these costs. For one, the pressure placed on the government to provide these welfare programs could leave them in a dangerous situation with their national deficit. Also, it would take a considerably larger amount of money than the government has means to provide to match the level of economic activity that would have occurred if the country had business as usual. Hence, a recession will most definitely occur and its effects will be felt not just by people who contract the disease but rather all contributing members of society. It is estimated that 7 million people starved to death in the Great Depression. Surely we must avoid that. Therefore, the Cost Benefit Analysis dictates that we should reopen the economy right? Wrong. Let’s highlight the principle costs that this analysis ignores. For one, placing a value on human life is something people have tried to do for years now and failed. Ford tried to do it in the Grimshaw V Ford Motor Co case by valuing the death of a human due to safety failures of their Pinto car at $200,000. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the value at $9.1 million, only to be immediately countered by the Food and Drug Administration at $7.9 million. The trials go on. There can be no fair analysis of costs and benefits which even attempt to value a human life. Not due to some philosophical reason of the value of free-will or anything as dramatic as that (though cases do exist for that), but rather due to the effect of death being too far-reaching to trace. Say a close friend of yours dies. The loss to society is not just the utility they would’ve provided but also the potential utility their dependants could have provided, the loss of utility you face due to your period of mourning, the costs of death, etcetera. If a hundred thousand people die in the United States due to COVID-19, society has not just lost a hundred thousand people but also the utility derived from them directly and indirectly. Secondly, it is unreasonable to assume that welfare costs would go down simply because people can go back to work. If people start going back to work as the economy reopens, we lose all efforts done so far to flatten the curve. The number of cases shoots up and suddenly the government is faced with the costs of healthcare for the massive amounts of new cases (even if they don’t have Universal Healthcare, the government still pays out more than 1 trillion every year for health care to programs like Medicare and Medicaid and veteran programs). Therefore, even their own argument goes against them as a more detailed Cost Benefit Analysis would show.
But all of this comes without even addressing the larger problem. That the most developed economy this world has ever seen has to resort to measuring its citizens and weigh it against public health. Why is it that the country viewed as a conventional benchmark for success is unable to provide its citizens with enough support for even short periods like two months without those citizens going broke, losing essential medical care and needing to go back to work amid a pandemic just to be able to survive. I mean if the economy was doing as well as suggested by the vocal few (interestingly the same people who call for it to be reopened), people should’ve been able to start saving and not have to live paycheque to paycheque and even if they were, the government (which had no doubt been “prospering” under its capable leadership and booming economy) should’ve been able to produce more than $1200 for basic essentials to get them through these times. There is obviously something very fundamentally wrong with the system, weak links in a chain that decides the faith of not just 300 million people but also the fate of organisations and countries across the free world. But those are arguments for another day.
Author : Aviral Dhamija