Facing Tragic Dilemmas
“I want to stress that for the vast majority of the people of this country, we should be going about our business as usual” said Boris Johnson in March 3. When Johnson refers to the “vast majority of the people” is applying a classic utilitarian ethics, aiming “the greater happiness for the greater number”, disregarding the costs to be faced by minorities, or the rights involved. Other political leaders, in Europe and America, for similar reasons, were also reluctant to anticipate bold decisions, when still the number of people potentially affected by CV-19 was expected to be small enough.
From a pure economic point of view, it is understandable that public administrations hesitated so much to engage is bold measures such as restricting mobility to the minimum and stopping the economic activity of the whole country for weeks. Measures to be taken by governments to flatten the CV-19 growth curve would provoke a drastic reduction in economic activity, which would result in a reduced welfare for “the vast majority” of people, in particular low-income classes and youngsters. The most important social benefit, obviously, was saving lives mostly from the elderly population.
After monitoring the experience in China, a group of modellers at the Imperial College London concluded that if the epidemic was not aggressively contained in the UK, half a million people would die— and more than 2 million in the US. Models such as this one helped to persuade the British government to follow much of continental Europe, following the experience of China and South Korea in putting the economy into a coma (Tim Harford, Financial Times 27 March 2020).
Donald Trump argued at the White House the 23 March that the nation might have to accept drastic public-health consequences for the sake of keeping the economic growth. A few hours later, one of his Republican allies went quite a bit further down the same path. Dan Patrick, Texas’ Republican lieutenant governor, on Monday night suggested that he and other grandparents would be willing to risk their health and even lives in order for the United States to “get back to work” amid the coronavirus pandemic. “Those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country,” Patrick said on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight. The GOP official, who’ll turn 70 next week, went on to say, “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren?’ And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.”
The argument of Dan Patrick is ethically controversial since it seems to envision a dynamic in which the economy returns to normal even when hundreds of thousands of elderly Americans succumb to a deadly virus. It is against common sense to believe that it can be economic normalcy or whatsoever while a pandemic sweeps through the population. The damage to the social values of the citizens may be devastating, because the rights of the minority of elderly people were disregarded after a life of work, once retired, and therefore everybody will learn that they should expect a similar future. This remains a consequentialist argument, but takes into account the long-term consequences even for people not yet born. In this sense, the moral argument becomes almost deontological: saving lives is a moral duty regardless the consequences because human lives are ends in themselves.
A grotesque calculation
In order to carry out a proxy of Cost-Benefit Analysis, the standard utilitarian or consequentialist decision-making criteria (a “grotesque calculation” according to Taylor (1991, p. 6), let’s assume that a large majority of victims are elderly people, and therefore the average age of victims may be about 65 years-old; also let’s assume that many of the victims at any age would have a number of other illnesses and therefore a life expectancy inferior to the rest of the population, well below 80 years. Let’s also assume a statistical value of life of, at least, $5 million for an average person in Italy or Spain, well above the common value indicated in official European Cost-Benefit Guidelines. We may assume that 150.000 persons were saved in each one of these countries because of large part of the economy was stopped during a month.
On the other hand, estimates of the economic impact vary: the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicted that COVID-19 will lower global GDP growth by one-half a percentage point for 2020 (from 2.9 to 2.4 percent); Bloomberg Economics predicted that full-year GDP growth could fall to zero in a worst-case pandemic scenario, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Estimates at the end of 2020 by the European Commission indicate a lost about 9% in Southern European countries but a rapid recovery in 2021. With these figures (almost two-figures reduction of GDP in 2021, several hundreds of thousands of lives saved, mostly old and vulnerable people, an standard Cost-benefit assessment may give a net positive social return rate assuming an statistical value of life in between EU and USA values o a very negative one, if some of these assumptions change.
Therefore the hesitation of some politics is not totally irrational; they had rational economic reasons if analysed from a pure classic utilitarian mind-set; but humanitarian concerns should prevail: who would like to live in a society that does not take care of elderly and more vulnerable population? A democratic society can not afford the health system to be under stress for months, expecting the economy to continue unaffected.