An article published on Newsroom this week takes potshots at “contrarian” academics who have chosen to question received wisdom regarding how countries around the world, including New Zealand, are responding to Covid-19.
As one of those “contrarian” academics, I would like to offer some additional perspective.
In an earlier piece for Newsroom “A Different Perspective on Covid-19”, I wrote that no one is suggesting that Covid-19 deaths are not tragic. I pointed out that in focusing on how many people died of the coronavirus around the world every day, we are ignoring the fact that as we devote resources to fight Covid-19, we take those resources away from alternative uses. This diversion will also result in the loss of lives. But those deaths will register less on our collective psyche since they will be diffused, scattered all over the world and will not be reported on in the same breathless manner. I called this the distinction between “identified lives”, deaths that happen right in front of our eyes and within a short span of time, as opposed to the more spread-out loss of “statistical lives” that occur in the background, slowly and inexorably.
The Newsroom article challenging this “contrarian” view and others quotes an infectious disease expert who says: “I’m just opposed to the very fundamental values base that they’re coming from, around how it’s okay to let people die of this because they would die anyway, or something? …This comes down to a values thing and what you’re willing to sacrifice for that.”
I agree. This does come down to a values thing. The position taken by many epidemiologists is this: we will minimise deaths from Covid-19 regardless of the cost. The obvious implication is that this is a comparison of lives lost against dollars saved.
This is completely and utterly untrue.
As I point out in my article, there is a trade-off here. We are going to lose lives no matter what. If we shut down the economy and prevent the disease from spreading, then we save lives that otherwise would have succumbed to Covid-19. But in shutting down our economies, we jeopardise the lives and livelihoods of others.
So, no, this is not about lives versus dollars; it is about lives versus lives.
This is because shutting down the economy has other unforeseen consequences. New Zealand’s unemployment rate could hit 13.5 percent. In the US, it is predicted to climb as high as 26 percent.
Is it so hard to believe that such high rates of unemployment are going to cause poverty, hunger, depression and yes…deaths? It is well-known that unemployment leads to lowered life expectancy. This kind of unemployment tears communities apart and results in long-lasting inequality. It tears at the fabric of our societies, destroys social capital and decimates our shared sense of community.
There are already people struggling with mortgage payments, rent and grocery bills. To what extent these people go under, or not,will depend on the extent of government bail outs. Some countries will do better; others less so.
And, much of this burden is falling and will fall on the socio-economically disadvantaged; the ones who are not able to engage in social distancing; the ones who do not have the luxury of working from home; the ones who are spending four weeks cooped up in cramped spaces without access to unlimited broadband; the ones who live from pay cheque to pay cheque, the ones who need to show up at our supermarkets and hospitals as part of essential services; the ones that need to take public transit in order to do so; the ones who are being exposed to the disease every single day since they have no way out.
The infectious disease specialist goes on to say that some countries are “digging mass graves”. This must refer to countries other than New Zealand since at the time of writing, we have had only nine deaths. Yes, other countries are certainly facing catastrophe but in a far different sense than the one she refers to.
A recent article by Ruchir Sharma in the New York Times sums it up: Some countries face an awful question: death by coronavirus or by hunger?
As Sharma points out, while 15 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the US, in developing countries more than two billion people are facing unemployment without any social safety net. As of now, nearly 80 countries have approached the IMF for bail-out packages.
What do you think will happen when the healthcare infrastructures of these countries collapse? People will die. They will die of easily preventable diseases like cholera. Children will die due to lack of adequate care or lack of vaccination. Diseases that we thought had been eradicated like measles will come roaring back. Confinement in close quarters, even in countries like New Zealand, is going to lead to a resurgence of tuberculosis; especially among the socio-economically deprived.
Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, recently said that South Asia is “faced with the stark choice” between “a lockdown” to control the virus and “ensuring that people don’t die of hunger and our economy doesn’t collapse.”
Are these lives worthless? Are these lives not worth saving?
Somehow, it seems to have come to the point where arguing for total lockdown is the enlightened, compassionate view and those questioning the wisdom of lockdowns are heartless philistines.
This is completely untrue. I believe our position is the more thoughtful and rational position; not born out of instinctive gut feelings but arrived at via careful reasoning.
We recognise that we are faced with a crisis. Sure, we need to minimise Covid-19 deaths; but in doing so, let us not jeopardise other lives. And yes, other lives are being jeopardised. We are simply saying that we should be clear-headed about the challenges. In this particular scenario I cannot do better than to appeal to the Benthamite principle of greatest good for the greatest number.
We are also arguing for saving lives; but we are saying let us look for options that minimise lives lost whether from Covid-19 or from our efforts to fight Covid-19.
At the end of the day, it is our position that is more humane and rational. Yes, it is a difference in values; except some are suggesting that some lives are worth saving more than others. We respectfully disagree.
First printed: Newsroom. https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2020/04/16/1130087/the-contrarian-view-on-covid-19