Lesser of two evils: death by virus or by recession

The United States is in the early stages of the pandemic of COVID-19 caused by the SARS-Cov-2 virus. As of this moment, there are 597,304 confirmed cases worldwide and 104,661 confirmed cases in the United States alone. Today, the number of cases in the United States grew to the point that there are now more cases in the United States than in any other country. Of course, we do not know if this is accurate, and suspect that it isn’t, because there are very likely many people, in many countries, who are infected but have not been tested. There is a growing movement, especially among republicans, to weigh the potential harm caused by the virus and the harm caused by slowing the economy (because of people sheltering in place, closed restaurants and other businesses). A friend brought this up to me recently, calling attention to a quote in the movie The Big Short: every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. It got me thinking…as most things do.

My friend didn’t have the quote, and couldn’t remember the numbers, so I went on a hunt to see what the quote was, and found it easily. I saw the movie, and liked it, but I didn’t remember that quote. Still, it make me wonder if it was true, and made me start to run a comparison of the two evils.

There are a few places that did some fact-checking of that number, and it seems to be a little less straightforward than it seemed at first. An analysis of suicide rates before and after the start of the last recession did find an increased rate. As reported by the New York Times, the suicide rate increased in the months after the start of the recession, with an estimated increase of 1500 deaths per year. That’s 125 deaths from suicide per month. Given that an average recession is 22 months, that’s 2750 more deaths by suicide attributed to the recession. But suicide isn’t the only way that people die, and it’s imaginable that a recession can take lives in other ways (increased crime, poor health care, etc.). A study of the last recession, however, found the opposite: that mortality rates decreased in areas where unemployment grew. There’s a story about this at NPR that tries to shed some light on the causes (although the study wasn’t designed to find a direct cause). The hypothesis is that when money is tight, people behave in a way that makes them less likely to die. Indeed, in the areas of the country that were studied, it added up to 50,000 to 60,000 fewer deaths per year during the time after the start of the recession. So, it appears that even if the death rate by suicide increases (which is bad, don’t get me wrong), the overall death rate falls by far more than the suicide rate increases.

Even if we ignore the 50,000 fewer deaths per year, and focused only on the 1500 more deaths by suicide each year, it still does not seem to justify sacrificing people to the virus to save them from other things. In the United States, in these early stages of the infection, there have already been 1707 deaths. In other words, we have already lost more people to COVID-19 than we might expect to lose to suicide in the first year of a recession. Worldwide, the mortality rate from COVID-19 is 4.58%. Although we do not yet know what the mortality rate will be in the United States, and it’s very likely that the mortality rate is actually lower than 4.58% (because there are likely more people with the virus than are reported), the mortality rates are based on the number of detected cases. If we extrapolate that to the infection in the United States, even if infections stopped today, that’s still an expected death toll of 4795, and the infections certainly will not stop today. As I wrote the other day, it is very likely that we will lose many people to this. World wide, we’ve already lost more than 27,000 people in a few months, and many countries, like us, are in the early stages of infection. With exponential increases, the death rate is very likely to climb well beyond that which would be lost because of a recession.

So, I simply cannot accept the idea that we’re doing more harm by slowing the economy than the virus will do. The numbers just don’t make sense to me.

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