COVID-19 has forced a new, and uncomfortable, discussion about the value of human life



Politicians will tell you that life is priceless. Last week, the Governor of the State of New York, Andrew Cuomo, argued that “No American is going to say ‘accelerate the economy at the cost of human life’”. The truth, unfortunately, is no longer that simple.

The coronavirus has created a very real pressure for politicians and decision makers to put a value on human life. Of course, the valuation of human life has always existed, for example, in cases of wrongful deaths or life insurance policies. But politicians, especially Cuomo’s ideological brethren, have always tried to avoid the debate, seeing it as an overly capitalistic, distasteful exercise. However, a stance like that under the backdrop of a global health emergency could be regarded at best as virtue signalling and at worst as doing more harm than good and putting more lives in danger.

As any economist will tell you, life-saving resources are scarce; just look at the global rush for medical equipment. Because of this, they should be allocated in a means that generates the best result for society. These calculations, economists such as Maureen Cropper would argue, would be impossible and even themselves immoral if conducted without human-life valuations.

That is not to say there does not exist a rational, logical argument behind believing the valuation of human life is unethical. In their 2004 book Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing, Ackerman and Heinzerling very adeptly argued that humans have a complete and unquestionable right to be free from harm caused by pollution. Therefore, by valuing human life and using it in a cost benefit analysis that in turn will be used as justification for laws or regulations that permits deaths caused by pollution, we are violating that absolute right.

Owing to the compelling lines of argument asserted on both sides, the economic and scientific communities have been stuck at an impasse over the ethics surrounding the question of human-life valuation. However, this article theorises that the coronavirus pandemic has swung a scythe through this debate and has elevated the valuation of human life to the position of being not only the practical solution, but also a moral obligation on the part of governments and decision makers.

The first argument is based on the premise made by Ackerman and Heinzerling on which their conclusions are built upon. Humans have an absolute right to be free from pollution they argue. The reason for this, pollution is created by humans and thus it would be unethical to impose pollution on another based on a human-life calculation. The point of deviation here is that, at least at the time of writing, the coronavirus is not caused by other humans. It is spread by humans but exists as part of nature and its spread is not sustained to profit others. Quite simply, the ‘all humans have a right to be free from pollution’ put forward by Ackerman and Heinzerling does not translate into a right for all humans to be free from the coronavirus – diseases do not play by these rules.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as we pass the peak of the virus, politicians are now having to decide whether to re-open economies. What Andrew Cuomo and many other decision makers are seeing is a choice between keeping the economy closed and thus saving lives or reopening and putting millions of lives on the line. This view is however, too blinkered; decision makers must adjust their scope of thought to reveal a fuller, more complex, picture.

They are correct on the one hand. Re-opening the economy will likely cause more citizens to come into closer contact with each other, providing pathways through which the disease will permeate, proliferating itself through swathes of the global population and, unfortunately, causing thousands, perhaps millions of deaths of mums, sons and other loved ones.

But that’s only half the story. Statistics show that in 2009, during the wake of the Great Recession, worldwide suicide rates were 12% higher than they were in 2007, just before the crash. There is a dispiriting link between unemployment and suicide; a 2001 study conducted in California found that unemployed men were over twice as likely to commit suicide as their employed counterparts, in women this difference could be three times as much. These statistics do not disguise the facts, that by allowing part of the global economy to wither, suicide rates will skyrocket.

An image that no one wants to conjure however, is the extent that self-inflicted deaths could reach. During the financial crisis, a time where global suicides increased by 12%, the United States’ real unemployment rate peaked at 10.2%. By comparison, in April 2020, Fortune magazine reported that unemployment fillings suggested the US real unemployment rate to already be at 20.6%, the highest level since 1934. Sadly, this is a number that will certainly rise and the longer shops remain closed for business, the longer this rise will continue.

Whilst suicide is the climax to those suffering with unimaginable stress, it is just the tip of the mental-health iceberg. For every suicide, there exists tens of attempted suicides, hundreds of acts of self-harm and thousands of cases of depression. A shut down of the economy will impact everyone, and it is a mighty strain to put on a population where mental health was such a prevalent issue before the coronavirus.

No one is suggesting that the decision for politicians is an easy one. Nor is there an obvious right answer. On one side; close the economy, curb the spread of the infection, but watch unemployment, suicide and mental health statistics skyrocket to record levels. On the other: re-open the economy and watch a deadly disease spread through the population.

The question of whether to reopen the economy can be boiled down to a macabre cost benefit analysis, but a cost benefit analysis all the same, and one that is incomplete without valuing the cost of human life.

Jake Waterfield an incoming graduate analyst at a European investment bank.