How Much Is a Human Life Actually Worth?

The numbers are staggering. On May 7, 2,231 Americans died of the disease Covid-19, bringing the total number of deaths in the United States to 75,662, and more than 270,000 worldwide. The economic effects have been nothing short of American carnage. At the end of April the US Congressional Budget Office hinted that the second quarter of 2020 would see the first drop in the US Gross Domestic Product in six years, and the worst since 2008. Since March, 33.5 million people have filed for unemployment. Companies large and small are going to disappear, along with millions of jobs. Consumer spending, business investment, manufacturing—everything is in freefall, and it’s not likely to get better until 2021, even if the pandemic eases and doesn’t snap back with a second wave. (Pandemics tend to snap back with second waves—especially when social distancing ends too soon.)
Put it that way, and the choice seems stark: Continue strict social distancing and shelter-in-place measures to minimize the spread of Covid-19 and save thousands of lives, or end the lightweight lockdown—open all the shops, restart the factories—and save the economy. Sacrifices must be made for the common good. “We can’t keep our country closed. We have to open our country,” President Trump said while visiting a mask factory in Arizona Tuesday. “Will some people be badly affected? Yes.”

But…really? The point of social distancing was to “flatten the curve,” to slow the spread of the virus so that hospitals wouldn’t be overwhelmed and governments could take public health measures—like widespread testing and tracing the contacts of sick people—to keep people safe. All of those things would have rendered the dichotomy false; the lockdown wouldn’t have to be total and the economic costs could be lessened. None of that happened.

Sacrifices have to be worth it. The good has to be greater. And there’s devilry in those details. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made the point in stark terms: “How much is a human life worth? That is the real discussion that no one is admitting, openly or freely—that we should,” Cuomo said in a briefing Tuesday. “To me, I say the cost of a human life, a human life is priceless. Period.”As the Associated Press has reported, the federal government has largely abandoned its own standards for when states should lift their shelter-in-place orders. A researcher at the respected Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told Congress last week that no state looked epidemiologically ready to go back to normal.And yet 31 states have decided to just go for it. Texas is letting restaurants and movie theaters reopen at 25 percent capacity, with barber shops to follow—while the governor acknowledges privately that Covid-19 cases will certainly increase as a result. Georgia is lifting its stay-at-home order and allowing places from tattoo parlors to bowling alleys to unlock their doors. Even California, which battened down early, is opening some southern beaches.

Information about the virus is incomplete and sometimes contradictory. So is information about its impact on the national economy. So is information about what people will contribute to the economy even if states end official restrictions. Given that uncertainty, who is going to get on an airplane next week? Or go to a crowded bar? (A minority, according to polls, but the perception of risk has declined in recent weeks, independent of the spread of disease.)

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How much is a human life worth? As a society we have historically been willing to incur costs to save lives and improve public welfare. Government forces carmakers to reduce air pollution to help people with asthma, and the price of cars goes up. Laws prevent factories from polluting to save fisheries, and goods cost more. But that kind of tradeoff clearly has limits. Few people suggest deactivating the country’s financial engines to fight opioid addiction deaths or flu or heart disease or traffic accidents. Why do it for this one very bad respiratory virus?