Sat. Oct 1st, 2022
Photo of a crashed car.
enlarge Economic downturn means less of these things.

Debates about the economic cost of lockdown and whether the lives saved are worth the price show no signs of abating. The arguments continue despite near consensus among leading economists that ending lockdowns in the United States at this point would result in more economic damage than a return to normalcy.

As Ars has reported, economists at the University of Wyoming have used the US federal agency’s guidelines on how much a human life is worth to determine that, under a range of realistic scenarios, the value of lives saved by lockdown will far outweigh the economic blow. surpass. And economists at the Federal Reserve and MIT have questioned the assumption that the economic cost of lockdown would, in fact, exceed the economic blow caused by unleashing the virus. Their analysis found that cities that had more aggressive public health responses to the 1918 flu pandemic did better economically.

But another question is being asked: won’t there be a recession? also cause loss of life? And how would this loss of life compare to the lives saved from COVID-19 through a lockdown?

The widespread intuition

President Donald Trump has claimed that a recession or depression will lead to greater loss of life than the coronavirus pandemic, which could kill as many as 2.2 million people in the US in the worst-case scenario, according to a widely used epidemiological model. (The New York Times indicates that the White House has provided no evidence for its claim.)

In the UK, The Times argued that an economic crisis resulting from an extended lockdown could claim more lives than the coronavirus. The report was based on a paper submitted to the journal Nanotechnology Perceptions that has not yet been peer-reviewed. The research, conducted by engineer Philip Thomas, is based on the finding that national GDP correlates with life expectancy. It then makes the rather strong assumption that GDP causes that life expectancy (rather than vice versa, or other factors that keep both in line). Further extrapolation makes the work an even stronger assumption: that a drop in GDP can thus be used to calculate the years of life lost from an economic crash.

This assumption is false in itself, but it is also not corroborated by real world data. Economists have been trying to understand the effects of economic crashes on life expectancy for nearly a century and have made some unexpected findings. Unsurprisingly, societies and economies are so complex that the consequences of economic crashes are complicated, messy, and context dependent. But on average, economic downturns seem to lead to fewer deaths, not more.

The counter-intuitive reality

With recessions, fewer people are on the road, which means fewer traffic accidents. And as we are now seeing with global lockdowns, less driving also means better air quality. Since poor air quality is itself a public health crisis, the air purification caused by the economic downturn could partly explain the decline in deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Less work also means fewer accidents at work and more free time, potentially leading to more exercise, more home cooking and less money for drinks and cigarettes.

This happy news hides a dark underbelly. While many people experience less stress, less risk of accidents and a lower burden of disease as a result of economic malaise, others are still hit hard. Mental health is declining. Binge drinking is booming. For some, stress-related conditions are on the rise, and in the US, healthcare can become impossible for many. Suicide rates appear to be rising as a result of recessions, although both suicides and opioid-related deaths in the US have continued to rise even as the economy has recovered, and other factors are at play.

It’s a complex picture. In some arenas, death rates are declining; in others they rise. Based on historical patterns, the health benefits seem to outweigh the costs when it comes to death rates. Of course, this does not mean that the wretched misery of those left behind can be forgotten. If the positive side of health in a recession is accompanied by austerity policies and increasing health inequalities, that is not such a positive side at all.

Policy choices

The evidence also suggests that these consequences are not set in stone. In an analysis of mortality in 23 EU countries after the Great Recession, researchers found that higher unemployment correlated with lower overall deaths, but more suicides. This increase was greater in countries with a less social safety net, such as Bulgaria, than in countries with a strong safety net, such as Germany. At the same time, mortality benefits were also greater in countries such as Bulgaria, suggesting that in countries such as Germany there was generally less response.

“Social protection spending appears to be helping countries ‘ease’ the health response to a recession,” the authors write. Meanwhile, low- or middle-income countries may have a very different calculation — evidence from Brazil suggests an increase in the death rate after an economic crash in 2014-2016, but also that the rising death rate was mitigated by health spending.

The issue of mortality during recessions is phenomenally complex. The causal links are tricky, the data is often messy and the possible research channels are many. But the complicated emerging picture can say one thing clearly: it is not correct to claim with any certainty that recessions lead to the loss of life. The dilemma we face is not ‘lives versus economics’, nor is it ‘lives versus lives’.

By akfire1

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