Pricing Lives in the Time of COVID-19

Excerpt of article by CNRS Research Professor at Sciences Po and senior researcher at CERI Ariel Colonomos, originally published in April 2020. Read the full article on the CERI website.

Maybe there is no difference, ethically, between saving 10 thousand lives and saving one single life (i.e. we are morally entitled to give each person an equal chance of survival). Maybe, by saving one person, we save the world.

Maybe, from a metaphysical point of view, the value of life is infinite (i.e. it is beyond measure). Or, maybe it is just a question of principle and life has no price. Nevertheless, from a political point of view, thinking and saying that numbers do not count is simply wrong. This is particularly the case during an epidemic or pandemic, during which states are “called to account.”

Numbers are indeed part of the measure of responsibility of governments when the lives of their citizens are endangered by a terrible threat. At a time when the numbers of people infected by and dying from COVID-19 are still rising or are extremely significant, counting the dead is a political question of major importance.

But the politics of numbers is not just about counting those lives that are being lost. During a pandemic, governments have to consider another quantitative measure, that given by economic indicators. For the state, and therefore for politics, these figures are important because they are measures of the general interest. Hence, what is the economic impact of a lockdown policy? In France late March 2020, INSEE (the national statistics agency) had assessed that a month of confinement will generate a 3% reduction of GDP; for other countries, the cost will be even higher. In fact, the economic outlook worsens every day.

Neglecting this aspect of the pandemic and avoiding the questions it raises would be an error. But let’s not get it wrong: this is not a simple economic question or a question for a penny-pinching shopkeeper. We cannot avoid this debate and we have to understand the relation between these two dimensions of the pandemic: that of lives saved or lost, on the one hand, and that of resources spent or preserved, on the other. Within the boundaries of our current knowledge of the situation, we have to make this political equation of responsibility thoroughly explicit. We have to take into account all its variables and therefore the various consequences of government decisions. Otherwise, it will not be possible to find the appropriate responses to the pandemic.

My argument is based on the premise that the state must take responsibility for the consequences of public action, and it relies on two additional observations. In the absence of both a vaccine and a treatment, failing to impose restrictions on the free movement of individuals during the pandemic will expose the population to what we know is a threat, and this decision will lead to an increase of the number of deaths—the latter being the responsibility of the state. At the same time, the state has to preserve its economic interests. Massive unemployment is the cause of further disastrous consequences and it is the responsibility of the state to avoid such chaos. Moreover, social and economic distress translates into loss of human lives. Money (be it private or public) affects people’s lives, their mental and physical health, and the social benefits they could expect in the future will be lower. Lives will be hurt or shortened if economic conditions deteriorate.

These two logics—lives and economic interests—are under tension and this tension has exacerbated. If a state is insensitive to the loss of human lives it will be accused of being cruel. If it is careless when making economic decisions, it will be accused of failing to protect the common interest. In both cases, the issue is one of finding the right balance, again, a very old tradition, as, for example, in Greek philosophy (according to Plato, the Statesman masters the art of measurement). Still, the content of this political arithmetic, based on the equivalence between two incommensurable goods—lives and material goods—remains to be clarified.

As a preamble, the “Your money or your life!” option needs to be discarded: in no way, is it a good alternative. We do not have to substract lives from amounts of money or the opposite. In such a calculation, lives would immediately translate into money and money could translate into life expectancy. Some economists consider we could attribute a monetary value to human lives as it shows in the concept the “value of statistical life.” This value is based on the average amount of money some individuals would be willing to pay to protect themselves from a risk divided by the probability given to this risk: if you agree to pay €5,000 to protect yourself from a fatal risk, the probability of which is 1/1000, then the value of statistical life is €5 million, i.e. 5000 / 1/1000. VSL is used in insurance and in public policy. Today, in the context of COVID-19, if we push this reasoning to the extreme, we could multiply the number of lives lost by this monetary value, then, we would compare this result to the financial resources used to save these lives. Eventually, we would know whether an excessive or fair cost is being paid for measures that are taken to stop the pandemic: “it is costing too much” or “it is a good deal and it is the right policy to follow.”

Not only does this approach clash with our psychological or moral intuitions, but it also undermines values such as dignity and lacks robustness in logical terms because it evades the issue of political responsibility. Increasing national wealth is not the primary objective of a state; ensuring the security of its population is. In the logic of political responsibility, life must be prioritised over money. Yet, and even if these two goods (life on the one hand and money on the other) are not comparable, this does not mean that there is no link whatsoever between them and that we are entitled to neglect material concerns in political decisions where lives are at stake. “Numbers count,” as they are constitutive elements of a political art of measurement, the terms of which need to be made explicit.

Read the remainder of the article on the CERI website.

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