Short Read

Is maintaining the economy a fair trade for lives?

As COVID-19 continues to spread, governments face a critical decision: whether to prioritise the economy or the lives of the people. In attempting to address this question, four frameworks are essential: the utilitarian, scarcity-based, duty-based and Rawlsian approach. The principle that, as Thomas Jefferson puts it, “the care of human life and happiness is the first and only object of good government” will be adopted to represent the main objective of the government. On the basis that each of these frameworks supports prioritisation of human life over the economy, it is clear that the United Kingdom’s government should not reopen the economy until there is only a minimal risk of infection.

Utilitarianism, a consequentialist ethical framework, assesses morality by reference to the harm versus the benefits accruing to everyone. The ideal outcome would be for no preventative death to occur and minimal economical loss; however, in the current circumstances, there is an obvious trade-off. Although it is difficult to measure the value of individual lives monetarily, one way of doing so is to use quality-adjusted life-years (QALY) to estimate one’s worth. QALY measures the value of health outcomes by attempting to combine one’s morbidity and mortality into a single figure. This figure is then used to value one’s worth per year of healthy living, which is around 25,000 pounds in the UK. The Office for National Statistics estimates the average age of a COVID-19 victim to be 84, which is three years above the national life expectancy. From an economic standpoint, this might imply that the worth of the QALYs left for the average victim is insignificant. Conversely, it has been estimated that the economic damage due to the lockdown will be almost USD 1 trillion. On first appearance, the economic harm resulting from a lockdown would thus outweigh the harm arising from the loss of lives (without a lockdown).

However, a research paper published in March by the Federal Reserve Board of New York suggests otherwise. By analysing the economic consequences of the last major pandemic, the Spanish Flu (1918-1919), they found that although pandemics depressed the economy, public health interventions such as social distancing and lockdown did not. Furthermore, cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively not only suffered economic consequences similar to those endured by unrestricted cities but also grew faster after the pandemic was over. Moreover, Deutsche Bank estimates that the Norwegian economy could shrink by 13% by the second quarter of 2020 as it is in total lockdown, but many experts argue that the overall outcome will be similar to that of its neighbour Sweden, where the economy has been kept open (no lockdown at all).  The Swedish Bank, SEB, estimates that the Swedish economy could contract up to 9.7% by the second quarter, but will miss out on the rebound of the economy as it was never closed. Indeed, it has become increasingly evident that Sweden will obtain no additional economic benefit by abstaining its economy from closure. Compared to Norway, Sweden –– whilst suffering from a mortality rate ten times higher –– has obtained minimal long-term economic benefit from the lockdown. Therefore, a utilitarian framework would suggest a prioritisation of lives over the economy, and thus a strict lockdown should be retained.

A scarcity-based approach is based upon the principle that what is scarcer is more valuable. For instance, life is significantly more valuable than the economy because economic growth is fungible, whereas each life is unique and irreplaceable. Iif individuals are deemed valuable because of their individuality, then the elderly are especially valuable due to the depth of their unique life experiences. Similarly, it could be argued that the quality of life is more important than the number of lives saved, and so the government should not impose unnecessary hardship on everyone to save a few. However, even experiences during periods of hardship are just as unique and can come to be treasured or drive people to achieve greatness, just as Van Gogh embodied his hardship in his impressionist paintings. For this reason and for the fact that the loss of life cannot be undone, a scarcity-based approach demands that we prioritise saving lives above the maintenance of the economy.

From a duty-based or deontological approach, the morally correct course of action is whatever one’s duty is. Therefore, to determine the government’s proper response to the coronavirus crisis, the primary responsibility of the government must be established. Fundamentally, if a government does not protect its people and ensure their survival, it will cease to exist. This implies that a government’s primary concern must be the lives of its citizens. However, not only do many people rely on the government, but a successful government also requires the confidence of its citizens. A workforce must be confident that their wellbeing is the government’s top priority to be maximally productive, which is the basis for any thriving economy. For instance, Scandinavian countries have had multiple social reforms where they have experimented by reducing work hours to improve the wellbeing of the population. The conclusion was that productivity did indeed rise, and that modified working hours should be introduced. Since then, Scandinavian countries have consistently ranked in the top 10 countries by GDP, proving that the productivity of the workforce relies on the governmental stance.

Hence, prioritising the economy over saving lives may not only be ineffective but could also be detrimental to the relationship between the government and the population in the future. Consequently, a duty-based approach where the morally right action is to do one’s duty holds that the importance of protecting lives must not be deemed less than that of maintaining the economy.

To evaluate the morality of a specific action without bias, philosopher John Rawls suggests that when making a decision, we should imagine ourselves sitting behind a “veil of ignorance”. The purpose of this approach is to keep us from knowing who we are and identifying with our personal circumstances so that we can observe morality objectively. Two central principles –– the liberty principle and the difference principle ––both favour saving lives over the economy. The liberty principle emphasises that one should try to ensure that everyone enjoys the maximum liberty possible without intruding upon the freedom of others. On first appearance, this principle may seem to hold that lockdown measures should be eliminated for they restrict upon one’s freedom. Although one’s freedom of movement is limited under the lockdown, it is permissible under the liberty principle to restrict one’s freedom of movement when the limitation reflects a choice by the majority of citizens.

The results of a representative survey in late April by a research team at Cambridge University demonstrated that an overwhelming 89 percent of citizens wanted there to be restrictive lockdown measures. In addition, the removal of lockdown regulations would cause more people to congregate outside, resulting in citizens concerned about or especially vulnerable to the virus having to further limit their movements to avoid undesired interactions. Thus, to honour the freedom of the majority of citizens, some lockdown measures are required. The difference principle advocates that everyone should have an equal opportunity to prosper despite their individual backgrounds or disabilities. Therefore, the principle requires the equality of treatment amongst everyone, and the only means to ensure the wellbeing of those vulnerable (especially those with underlying conditions and the elderly) is via a lockdown. Therefore, after applying a “veil of ignorance”, the overriding judgment is that a lockdown should be maintained so that saving lives is placed above the economy.

The four ethical frameworks discussed above differ in their animating principles and assumptions. Nonetheless, when applied to the question faced by governments around the world –– whether to prioritise lives and lockdown the economy or prioritise the economy and risk the lives of their citizens –– they ultimately arrive at the same conclusion. Through analysing the multitude of frameworks, it is clear that the government should prioritise the saving of lives over the continuance of the economy as it is the most ethical approach. Therefore, lockdown measures should only be completely removed when there is a minimal risk of infection in the community.

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