Recently, some Republicans have suggested that social distancing measures are not worth the damage they cause to the economy. This was explicitly suggested by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who wanted to sacrifice senior citizen’s lives. But it was also suggested by Trump who said,
We have two very, very powerful alternatives that we have to take into consideration. Life is fragile, and economies are fragile.
So they’re seeing it as a trolley problem: do you save the people on the tracks, or do you maintain the trolley schedule? Oh, won’t somebody please think of the trolley schedule!
This one’s a real head-scratcher. pic.twitter.com/f0mUAvCk1K
— Juhana Leinonen (@JuhanaIF) March 24, 2020
I’d like to take this moral dilemma seriously, for the sake of argument. At the end, I will estimate, just how many Hitlers are we talking here?
Is saving lives always more important than the economy?
Most people would say that saving lives is more important than saving the economy. Granted, when the economy is bad enough people can lose their lives, maybe because they starve or because the quality of health and healthcare goes down. But still, the purpose of the economy is to serve our lives, not the other way around.
But we as a society do make a few decisions that suggest that saving lives does not infinitely outweigh saving the economy. Trump offered a couple points of comparison: car accidents, and the flu.
It’s true, we could decrease the number of deaths by car accident or the flu by enforcing shelter-in-place. Indeed, I suspect the number of car accidents and flu infections are dropping precipitously right now. But for some reason, we as a society do not behave as if this is a worthwhile trade-off. We don’t order everyone to shelter in place just to avoid car accidents.
Of course, if society were somehow persuaded to take greater action on car accidents or the flu, there are much better methods available. Like, more advertising and incentives for people to get their annual flu vaccine. Or greater investment in public transit. Plausibly, either of these public expenditures would actually stimulate the economy rather than depress it.
But these are all general remarks. It matters a great deal, how many lives are we talking? How much economy? Well, I have some grim news, and grimmer news…
How much economy?
Some articles are saying that the so-called coronavirus recession will rival the Great Recession of 2008. But from what I can tell, that’s extremely optimistic. Goldman Sachs predicts that the US GDP will decline by 24% in Q2 this year. The peak-to-trough drop during the Great Recession was 5%. This is more comparable to the 27% decrease in US GDP from peak to trough during the Great Depression!
You should be looking at me with some skepticism. There’s a difference between a slow peak-to-trough drop, and a drop that occurs during a single quarter (not sure which one is worse). But also the Great Depression was centered in the US while the coronavirus is worldwide—oh wait, that’s worse! But also, this is just what Goldman Sachs thinks. To avoid cherry-picking, I found an article describing forecasts from seven “financial heavyweights”. The median estimate (among those explicitly listed) is a 12% drop in Q2.
12% is really bad too, the worst since the post-WWII depression. This looks pretty bad no matter how I slice it.
Is the staggering economic cost really worth however many lives we save (to be estimated in the next section)? Well, I doubt it would be worth it just to save the 36k lives lost annually to motor vehicles. To be honest, I think people are gonna die from this economy (have you seen our pathetic welfare system??).
On the other hand, I’m thinking that this strategy where we just do business as usual, and power through the deaths from COVID-19, it’s literally impossible. You can’t make us do it. The federal government can’t stop California from enacting shelter-in-place policies. And California can’t stop individuals from exercising their personal freedom to avoid restaurants and public events.
Governments will not even be able to prevent themselves from taking restrictive measures. Once it becomes clear how many people are dying, political pressure will mount, and not even Trump’s legendary powers of self-delusion will permit staying the course. The economy is going to be throttled, sooner or later. Throttling it sooner will save lives and mitigate the damage to the economy. Not taking action is not rational, whether you measure the outcome in lives or dollars.
How many lives? (Or, How many Hitlers?)
First, let me rattle off some death counts from other causes, to get a sense of perspective.
As I’ve already mentioned, 36k people died from motor vehicles in 2018, in the US. 40k people died from guns in 2017. The median number of flu deaths per year is 38k, and the current season is estimated between 23k and 59k deaths.
Trump himself referred to the flu season, attempting to play up how bad the flu is in order to play down COVID-19. He thought 50k people would die from the flu this season. That’s in the upper range, but we’ll roll with it.
And how many people were killed in the Holocaust? Wikipedia says 11 million, 6 million of whom were Jews. I know I know, comparisons to Hitler. But it’s a useful point of reference as something that most people would consider a completely unacceptable loss of life.
How many people would die of COVID-19, if everyone were to treat it as business as usual? Well according to Trump, who was trying his hardest to downplay the virus, the mortality rate is only 1%, maybe less. The WHO estimates the mortality rate to be around 3.4%. But there are biases, so sure, let’s go with Trump’s optimistic estimate of 1%.
Washington post pointed out 1% mortality rate is already 10 times greater mortality rate than the flu, so if it has a similar reach to the flu then ten times more people would die. So, 500k. But that seems incredibly optimistic to me. The flu is less infectious and a lot of us have gotten flu vaccines, which don’t exist for COVID-19.
If people treated it as business as usual, I’d have to guess that approximately everyone will be infected, and 1% of the US population will die. That’s 3 million people. A quarter-Hitler. In the US. (Worldwide, that’s maybe 7 Hitlers.) And maybe I’m making too many assumptions, but it’s actually not far off from this epidemiological study which estimates 2.2 million in the US without action.
But that’s only direct deaths. You see, once hospitals are overflowing, the mortality rate will go up, and not just for COVID-19. Basically for anything that requires hospitalization.
You could say that many of those people will eventually get infected anyway, and die anyway. It’s beyond my powers of research to make an estimate. But I don’t know, we’re talking a quarter of a Hitler here, by Trump’s own optimistic numbers. If we can avoid even a fraction of that, it’s worth throttling the economy sooner, instead of being forced to do it even more so later.
In all seriousness, wherever you live, please demand that your government take action now, if they haven’t already. Studies estimate that the median incubation period is 5 days so any action that appears appropriate right now is at least 5 days too late.