A recent report from the Well Being Trust estimates that about 68,000 Americans could die as a result of the isolation, loneliness and unemployment induced by the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. The White House cited statistics from the report — which predicts a surge of avoidable deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide — to support plans to reopen the economy. The president has repeatedly made claims like “people are dying that way, too. You could make the case it’s in even greater numbers.”
While the mental and physical health effects of isolation and job loss for millions of Americans should not be neglected, it’s unlikely that government lockdown orders are a greater threat to life than the disease itself. In fact, our new research finds that state orders aimed at suppressing the first wave of COVID-19 may save Americans as much as half a trillion dollars, which in itself, will save more lives.
In our new Mercatus Center research, we examine the benefits and costs of government policies aimed at hopefully gaining control over the coronavirus, such as the “stay at home” orders issued by state governors throughout March and April. Our analysis looks at how the economic losses stemming from these orders, as well as the health benefits of these orders, affect mortality.
The relationship between income and mortality is a bit of a puzzle. Normal economic activity comes with risks that kill tens of thousands of Americans each year. For this reason, counterintuitively, mortality often declines during recessions. Some kinds of deaths rise — like suicides — while others fall, like car accidents and occupational hazards.
Over the longer term, however, persistent losses to income do lead to more deaths, not fewer. As you might expect, the inverse is also true: wealthier individuals and countries tend to have lower rates of mortality than poorer ones. When jobs or business revenues disappear, people have less to spend on private risk mitigation, such as safer family vehicles or home security systems. A child’s socioeconomic status is also a strong predictor of health and well-being as an adult.
Economists have even developed tools to estimate fatalities stemming from income losses. In a forthcoming academic article, one of us (Broughel) and Vanderbilt University economist W. Kip Viscusi find that for approximately every $111 million that a government action imposes in economic costs, society can expect one additional death.
Government lockdown orders cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost economic output, potentially some $36 billion each week that orders remain in place. On the other hand, sparing a million Americans from death, millions more the costs of hospitalization and hundreds of thousands from the costs of mechanical ventilation or losses to lifetime income due to lasting lung damage, could mean hundreds of billions in expenditures saved.
On balance, preventing the economic devastation imposed by the virus itself probably means that more money is saved than is lost from the shutdown orders. By extension, this means the orders save additional lives beyond those saved from just fighting the disease. That’s not to say that it’s impossible for the “cure to be worse than the problem,” but our analysis suggests that it’s not as likely.
To date, most cost-benefit analyses of social distancing measures fail to account for indirect risks stemming from changes in income — a potentially huge oversight when costs are significant. For example, University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales recently argued that the United States should be willing to bear up to $65 trillion in costs to address COVID-19. That’s about three years’ worth of GDP. If a three-year lockdown sounds excessive, it should: a $65 trillion price tag translates into roughly 590,000 additional expected deaths.
As the pandemic evolves and leaders consider what to do next, they should remember the importance of incidental benefits and costs. Policymakers who ignore these countervailing effects do so at all of our peril.
James Broughel is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an adjunct professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School. Michael Kotrous is a program manager for the Innovation and Governance program at the Mercatus Center. They are co-authors of forthcoming Mercatus Center research on “The Benefits of Coronavirus Suppression: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Response to the First Wave of COVID-19.”
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