Counting the Lives Lost to Flatten the Curve

April 10, 2020

By David Flemming

Most of us who have spent time online have seen at least some variation of the “Flatten the Curve” graphic. The idea is simple: individuals and governments must take steps to spread the coronavirus at a slower rate, or our healthcare system’s capacity will be overwhelmed by infected patients. The vast majority of Vermonters and Americans began taking precautions weeks ago, such as frequent hand washing and social distancing. But the cases of Covid-19 kept popping up, and Vermont’s government scaled up its response.

Governor Scott issued a stay at home order on March 24, saying “I fully recognize the emotional, financial and economic impact of these decisions, but based on the best science we have available, these measures are necessary.” Such a statement implies a relatively easy choice: we can choose saving jobs or saving lives. If we want to ‘save lives,’ than we will of course choose saving lives. But is the choice of life over employment really that simple?

A University of California professor found that each employee who gets laid off loses 1.5 years of their lifespan. And a university of Munich study found that women who become unemployed are at greater risk of domestic violence. Since March 16, 2020, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has received 2000+ calls in which COVID-19 was cited as a condition of abuse. High school students who miss 3 or more days a month are 7 times more likely to drop out before graduating and, as a result, live 9 years less than their peers, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report.

And perhaps most disturbingly, is the increase in suicide due to unemployment. WCAX recently reported an uptick in suicides in Vermont during the stay at home order. During the 2009 Recession, the US suicide rate jumped when unemployment hit 10%, resulting in 4,750 more deaths. We already lose almost 100 Vermonters to suicide each year. What happens if Vermont’s unemployment quadruples?

Trying to construct a neat little graph with all of these components would be impossible. We will never know how many more Vermonters have years knocked off their lives, never know how many cases of domestic abuse occurred, how many more high schoolers dropped out a year or two later due to the stay at home order, and how many suicides could have been avoided were it not for the order. There is a tradeoff here, one that does not mean we should only count the lives lost to COVID-19. This implies that that reopening Vermont’s economy before the number of lives lost from COVID-19 reaches “0” may actually save lives, on net. Job loss means lives lost.

David Flemming is a policy analyst at the Ethan Allen Institute.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Richards April 11, 2020 at 11:26 am

Losing a “year and a half” because of unenjoyment seems like the only option. The other is more infection more immediate chance of death. Your argument is a stretch at best and typical of the apologists of money interests at worst.
My read of your argument says as a worker I should risk death solely for the economy. I’m not buying it. The transparent greed in your argument is shameful.
Let’s us live we’ll go back to work when it’s safe. We’ll work for the wages you offer. I’m guessing that wages will have to be cut because of the severe hit the economy took. (Are you researching that argument now)? We’ll come back but not with the meager protections you’ve offered in the past. It’s a new world. Regards, Bob R


Joyce April 11, 2020 at 8:35 pm

No Bob you like many others who claim the no loss of life is worth it argument, neglect to understand that everything in life is a trade off. Taking a vaccine (and yes some have side effects) is a choice for some who weigh the good and bad may decide not to. We all make choices every day the vaper who sees no immediate physical damage may be the one the virus claims because they vaped. Choices it is one of the reasons I love this country we used to have choices! It will remain to be seen if we stiill have them once the governmint decides we are allowed.


Mike April 12, 2020 at 12:41 pm

Simple question. If your DEAD, how can you work???? It’s not complicated.


Tyler April 13, 2020 at 3:03 pm

It’s much more complicated than that. Your question makes a number of assumptions that are at least highly questionable. First, it ignores the fact that this reaction can actually cause immediate deaths, both in the form of suicides as the article mentioned, and in the form of people with other medical issues who may not be getting proper treatment. Second, you assume that the overall mortality rate in society has been significantly increased by this disease, which is not true at the moment, even in NYC, Spain, or Italy. It is also not true in other states or nations that have taken much more liberal measures in dealing with the situation. Go look at the data for these states: Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas.


ivan April 18, 2020 at 2:24 pm

simple question
If you cannot buy food, heating fuel, buy medicine for the sick you are dead regardless

a little common sense would be nice


Jimbo Jones April 21, 2020 at 7:26 am

If you want actual information rather than speculation and misreading of the data, read a recent analysis in the Economist about this topic. It does not support your claims.


Aimee April 21, 2020 at 9:07 pm

We currently have 21 people in the hospital in Vermont because of COVID while many others are being denied so-called “elective surgeries” to deal with dire health conditions such as cancer. The point of “flattening the curve” was to ensure our hospitals don’t become overrun. We aren’t even close to having a hospital capacity issue in Vermont. In fact, our hospitals have begun to lay off staff. The economy should be reopened NOW before more damage is done to Vermont and Vermonters.

“Politicians talking about any data beyond hospital capacity for reopening the economy are moving the goal posts.”


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