COVID-19: How much is a life worth?

Watching news reports about the economic devastation, my wife said the unsayable: “This isn’t worth it.”

The economic disaster is not from people falling ill, but the aversive measures. They’re hurting huge numbers very badly. Is this worth it? Would it entail less suffering to just let COVID-19 run its course? Many millions would get sick, but for the vast majority it would be minor. Only a fairly small percentage would die. Common flu annually sickens tens of millions and kills tens of thousands.

Dr. Fauci (a real hero) was asked why we’re taking extreme measures for COVID-19, but not for common flu. He didn’t have much of an answer — basically that common flu is, well, common, and COVID-19 is not. It’s also called “novel coronavirus.” Novelty grabs attention that the familiar doesn’t.

Suppose, if unchecked, COVID-19 would kill a million Americans, even several million. Fighting it costs many trillions. Governments will lose tax revenues and spend several trillion on bailouts and economic aid. Individuals, collectively, will lose even more in reduced incomes; personal wealth is already shredded. A trillion is a million million. So the fight is costing us quite a few million for every life saved.

How much is a life worth? That might sound like a crass question, or an unanswerable one. But in reality we answer it all the time, in many contexts. For example, when juries decide what dollar damages to award in “wrongful death” lawsuits. More pertinent here, public policy is forced to answer it when weighing the costs of any health and safety measures against the benefits.

Take pollutants. We might be able to remove 99% of a pollutant at a cost that’s pretty reasonable for every resulting life saved. But to get the last 1% out might cost a lot more — too much in relation to the few additional lives that would save. We recognize that lives have value, but not infinite value.

That’s not callous but rational simply because resources are not infinite either. The money spent to eradicate that last 1% of a pollutant would mean less money for other things — which could save more lives. Imperfect humans don’t always make these choices with perfect rationality, but we intuitively grasp the point and act accordingly in at least a general way.*

Economists can analyze all these instances in which, explicitly or implicitly, we put a value on a human life, and calculate a number. It’s been done. The answer seems to be somewhere in the range of a million or two.

But are some lives worth more than others? One could note that most COVID-19 deaths are elderly and frail, not long for this world anyway, so the loss is arguably much less than for a youngster with many years ahead. Wrongful death cases often entail estimating what the deceased might have gone on to earn. This was taken into account by the 9/11 compensation fund. But for all the logic of trying to put a number on a life’s value, such an earnings-based approach seems faulty. That views lives as economic assets for others. Whereas the value of people’s lives is primarily to themselves.

A homeless person’s life is not worth less to them than a billionaire’s. And don’t be quick to say the latter derives more enjoyment from living. Many homeless people are happier than many billionaires.

What I’ve written here is shaped by my humanist philosophy. Which tells us to apply reason to human problems. And that human life (as Vince Lombardi said of winning) “is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.”

Those two precepts might seem to clash in a dilemma like COVID-19. That’s far from unique in human affairs. The value of human life — of any single human life — is ultimately an ineffable thing. But respect for it is the cornerstone of humanism. That is why we are doing what we are doing to contain COVID-19. We cannot do otherwise, even if the cost seems disproportionate.

With common flu (and all other normal threats to life), we’re set up to provide medical care to those who need it; recognizing that some will die even with everything done for them. We’re not similarly equipped to deal with a spike of COVID-19 victims in the millions. Hospitals and medical personnel would be overwhelmed, unable to cope. Great numbers of people would die simply for lack of care. A horrific scenario that would sear all our souls. To avoid that is why we’re trying to “flatten the curve,” so everyone will at least get proper medical help. We may yet actually fail.

This is about who we are as a society, as human beings. We cannot let ourselves say that the lives of some people — frail aged people — are of lesser value, and we can just kiss them off. That would put us on a road whose destination we know all too well.

* Economist Robert Frank has said there’s actually an optimal amount of dirt in your house. Up to a point, cleaning is worth it, but the effort to banish the last speck of dirt is not.

7 Responses to “COVID-19: How much is a life worth?”

  1. Doug Weston-Kolarik Says:

    Outstanding article. Totally agree with you on this issue. Thank you.

    Dr. Doug Weston-Kolarik

    On Sun, Mar 22, 2020 at 7:52 AM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: “Watching news reports about the economic > devastation, my wife said the unsayable: “This isn’t worth it.” The > economic disaster is not from people falling ill, but the aversive > measures. They’re hurting huge numbers very badly. Is this worth it? Would > i” >

  2. Bob Cutler Says:

    I agree with nearly all you wrote, with a possible exception regarding “Whereas the value of people’s lives is primarily to themselves.” I know of many wonderful people whose lives are worth much more to others than to themselves. Nevertheless, your point is well taken, and we should not try to determine the value of any particular person’s life (old or young, well or ill, etc.) vs those of others. Regarding the aged vs others, the measure of excess deaths is informative but, to be accurate, retrospective. For example, the deaths in an afflicted country from all causes may increase early in 2020 but decrease to a lower number than usual in late 2020, as the weaker among us may not live to die later. The total for the year may not be much greater than in recent years past, and not as great as we may be seeing now. If that sounds like an improved result, we should keep in mind that the toll in lost months of lives would remain. You are also correct to point out that threats other than COVID-19 should be considered more seriously, rather than accepted by acclimation. USA annual circulatory system-related (heart disease, stroke, etc.) deaths number about 860,000, cancer deaths 600,000, accidental injury deaths 170,000, chronic respiratory deaths 160,000, Alzheimer deaths 120,000, diabetes deaths 80,000, flu & pneumonia deaths 80,000, drug deaths 70,000, kidney disease and suicide deaths each 50,000, liver disease deaths 40,000, Parkinson deaths 30,000, and anemia-malnutrition deaths and homicide each 20,000. Eventually, we will know how our coronavirus “excess deaths” compare, but the present number is under 400 here and (even more sadly) about 3,000 each in China and Italy. Regarding your larger points, it is certainly reasonable to maintain that the current widespread hysteria is excessive, and resources must be used not only to extend lives but also to improve lives. Thanks for writing so sanely about coronavirus.

  3. ryan71 Says:

    Your question is a valid legal question but I don’t think you are really asking the right question here. I think you should be asking how much is your vote worth? Can we say between $600-1,200 each? If you have to ask where those numbers come from just ask your senate representative? Or maybe ask a farmer. I think both will provide you with the same answer.
    When you look at what is going on in this nation over the last 8 years you can see a shift in voters. Google reports that the average age of a Republican is 50 and rising. If this disease were to run its course naturally where would the Republican party be afterward?
    Another question that isn’t asked in this article is where and who is going to pay for all this? The numbers are $1.2 trillion dollars now.
    The farm tariff act costs the US taxpayers $28B. That’s more than NASA, the US Nuclear Arms budget or even the State Dept. budget. For what? For a self-inflicted problem? People really need to wake up. Maybe, just maybe, with this extra time we have been granted we can educate ourselves on the recent past and make some meaningful decisions for our future and our children’s future.

    “..I hope you like me better than in ’16.”

  4. Joe Zoske Says:

    Your points are well focused and warranted. It’s never more important to “question authority” than when a government calls a national emergency and begins to take unprecedented actions. I would balance your viewpoint with more explicit compassion; namely, more fully acknowledging the suffering that takes place in either scenario. The tragic and painful suffering of illness and death experienced by individuals and families due to a frightening new disease, and one that by its very contagious nature doesn’t allow loved ones to gather together. The desperation that people are beginning to feel due to fear, confusion, uncertainty, loss of control, etc., and the serious mental health issues that will arise from this. There will be a devastating impact shutting down our society will bring to our communities, and the ripples is has sent in motion cannot even be fathomed at this point.

    One could endlessly play out the arguments on both sides of the equation, but it is the asking of the questions that is critical. And politicians should especially not be allowed to get away with statements such as Cuomo made when, declaring the NYS shutdown, on camera, “if it saves one life it is worth it” (a patently absurd idea). Or the ludicrous situation of liquor stores staying open as essential services, while alcoholics struggling with sobriety cannot gather at an AA meeting. Eventually, I hope we will begin seeing more independent investigative journalism start to do their job, but it should have happened from the very start.

  5. Eric Hoheisel Says:

    Leaders everywhere are faced with a pick your poison moment. They can choose less deaths or less economic pain, but both economic pain and death will still be considerable no matter which path is chosen.

  6. Greg Says:

    With respect to flu viruses “novel” is a term of art meaning a variation that has not been previously identified in humans.

    There are a variety of known viruses (see Wikipedia ‘seasonal flu’). They go thru small (and sometimes large) changes each year thus the impact of a given flu season can vary. When it comes to small mutations vaccinations provide some immunity even though they are based “on last year’s flu”.

    When a ‘novel’ flu virus arrives there is zero human immunity around the globe. These are the most likely to cause pandemics and kill millions quickly. The less dangerous ones are not transmissible until a patient looks really ill – in this case the infectious patients are easily quarantined, plus they’re not so mobile while they are infectious. The more dangerous ones (like the current virus) are easily transmissible before the patient shows any symptoms and before they have any idea that they have and they are spreading the virus.

  7. Bob Cutler Says:

    Good points! A more comprehensive response than to seasonal flu may be justified. Nevertheless, we are left with the question of how much to shut down, and whether shutting down what seems to be nearly everything (in areas like mine) is too much. On one hand, I agree with Frank’s concern and worry that the cure may be worse than the disease. On the other hand, I think that much – probably far too much – of the value that underlies the US economy arrives from overseas, China (of all places!) and elsewhere. Furthermore and sadly, my personal opinion is that the majority of our country’s occupations add relatively little net value. Examples that come to my mind range from those as dangerous as our firearms and weapons industries, through those that manipulate people such as overextension of unsecured credit and much of advertising, to those that may seem relatively beneficial such as lawn care. Each person may nominate different non-essentials and our country can decide using democratic principles, but I suppose there is much that the majority will agree can be shut down and much that should be kept open for business. No simple answer!

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