As the saying goes, on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero. Or, more simply put, no one lives forever, no matter what government or the private sector might do. However, the government certainly has the power to shorten and/or lengthen life spans with certain public policy choices, and it faces a monumental choice in the coming weeks.
Right now, as we head into the final week of April and state and local governments face the choice of whether to allow businesses to resume activities, the choice that's being presented is between saving the lives of people who might die of the coronavirus, and restarting the economy. In other words, a choice between saving lives and saving money.
This is a false choice. It is time to be adults and acknowledge the facts.
People who advocate reopening the economy at the end of the upcoming week should be honest that their preferred policy may end up costing some lives. However, people who advocate keeping the businesses shut down should also be honest and admit that their preferred policy will also cost lives. The idea that we can keep the shutdown going through May or longer at the cost of zero human life years is an absolute fantasy that is completely disconnected from reality.
Either choice — reopening the economy now or keeping it closed for an additional period of time — will result in people dying (or losing some of their life span). The shutdown we have undertaken thus far has already likely cost lives.
Here are just some of the ways that extending the shutdown past the end of April will cost even more lives.
The coronavirus shutdown has already sent tremendous shockwaves through the global food supply chain, and the longer it goes on, the greater the danger is that this disruption will be long term. Even U.N. officials are sounding the alarm, warning that an additional 130 million people worldwide will be pushed to the brink of starvation from the economic impacts of the coronavirus shutdown.
How many people will literally starve to death from the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus shutdowns? Hopefully, the number in America will be relatively small, although it will certainly be worse in other parts of the world.
But even people who won't literally die immediately from not having enough food will likely have their life spans shortened considerably, as the combined effects of both food supply chain disruption and economic recession will force millions of people into eating food that is cheaper, less nutritious, and more highly processed.
The complications from poor dietary intake are by this point well understood and include virtually every medical complication under the sun. Among the most common of these that are likely to see sharp increases as a result of the coronavirus shutdowns are diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and even some cancers.
These "ordinary" medical conditions are already the biggest causes of death in the United States, by far — orders of magnitude larger than the coronavirus. For perspective, cardiovascular disease alone was estimated to be responsible for over 800,000 deaths last year. Thus, a 10% increase in cardiovascular disease would cause more deaths in the United States than the entire coronavirus pandemic is expected to cause.
Even incremental increases in these conditions due to dietary changes could cost tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths per year for as long as economic recession and global food supply chain disruptions exist. And the longer the shutdowns continue, the longer (and deeper) those recessions will become.
Another thing that is well understood, past the point of controversy, is that economic downturns cause suicides. According to some estimates, the economic recession of 2008-09 caused between 5,000 and 10,000 extra suicides compared to the norm. This recession is already worse than the 2008-09 recession, and is likely to be significantly worse. If the economy remains shut down for another month, that certainly will only prolong it.
It seems like research really isn't necessary into this issue, but the research exists anyway: suicide rates do rise and fall rise and fall inversely to the overall health of the economy. It is impossible to predict the exact number that will be caused by any lengthening of the coming recession, but it is likely to be in the thousands for each additional year that the recession lasts.
3. Other diseases
You might expect that in the middle of a global pandemic that the private health care sector would be the one part of the economy that is doing well. You would be wrong. The vast majority of the United States' health care system is not trained or equipped to help with the current coronavirus crisis, leading to mass furloughs and clinic closures among portions of the health care sector that are not dedicated to helping fight coronavirus.
The thing is, people need those portions of the health care sector. Regular "maintenance" visits to primary care physicians and outpatient clinics for "elective" medical care and outpatient procedures is positively correlated with longer lives and better health outcomes.
However, as a result of the shutdowns, people are not getting regular maintenance care that they need for their health problems which have nothing to do with coronavirus. Surgeries that are desperately needed but deemed "elective" because they aren't for the immediate prevention of death have already been postponed for weeks across the country. Every day and week that the non-coronavirus sector of the health care industry remains shutdown, and people remain unable or afraid to leave their houses and seek care for their daily maintenance medical needs, will likely cost lives down the road. The true cost in terms of human lives may never be known.
However, even these costs will likely be dwarfed by the loss of human life caused by people losing their health insurance and/or primary source of income due to a prolonged recession/depression. If people don't have money/health insurance, they don't go to the doctor as often. When they do go, they can't always afford the medicine they need. This means that countless health conditions that would be much more manageable if they were caught and treated early will be ignored until they are serious problems — a reality that is one of the primary reasons that lower income individuals often have poorer health outcomes.
The longer a recession or depression extends, the more people will not be able to get or afford preventive care that they need, which means that lives will be lost and lifespans shortened.
4. Failure to develop life-extending technology
When the economy prospers, companies have surplus cash that they can use not only to pay employees, but also to put into research and development into new technology. Much of that technology, in addition to making life easier overall, has the capacity to extend human life.
One of the reasons the American life span has been continually lengthening isn't just that new medical technology has enabled doctors to literally extend lives that otherwise would have ended, but also that technology in general has allowed humans not to have to physically abuse their bodies so much (or place themselves in physically dangerous situations) just to make ends meet. As recently as last year, some experts were predicting that an average human life span of up to 100 years was right around the corner.
Many companies have come to understand the importance of research and development in obtaining a competitive advantage and thus will cut their R&D budgets last. But in the event of a severe and prolonged economic downturn, "cut last" still means "cut steeply," as the 2008-09 recession showed. The longer and deeper the coming recession is, the less research and development will be done into lifesaving and life-extending treatment in the future.
What does it all mean?
The economy doesn't need to be reopened soon because rich people need to keep buying HDTVs and protect their hedge funds. The economy needs to be reopened soon because if it isn't, people are going to die. Those people, disproportionately, will be poor. Their lives ought to matter as the government decides when and if it will allow American businesses to resume normal activity.