What about “If it costs one life”?

by Rob Roper

New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently said of the economic shutdown in his state, and presumably everywhere, “if it saves one life” it’s all worth it. Of course, that is a noble sentiment. But there is another side to that coin. These decisions will cost lives too. For example, following the last Great Recession, the U.S. saw a spike of over 10,000 deaths from suicide. Vermont is already seeing an increase in the number of domestic violence cases resulting from the stress of being cooped up in close quarters.

Politicians have been urged to “listen to the doctors and scientists.” Of course, they should. But they must also consider that the doctors and scientists have blinders on. The doctors’ only concern is to limit the casualties resulting from COVID-19. That’s an important goal. But they are not considering casualties not related to the virus that are caused by the response to it. That’s not their job. It still doesn’t eliminate the questions of how many lives will be cut short because people lose their jobs and access to health insurance? Or because they lose access to housing? Or can no longer afford or access proper nutrition. Or can no longer get access to medical care not related to COVID-19? How many people will die prematurely a year or two from now because their retirement savings were wiped out today? What are the long-term implications of these restrictions on mental health? Will they lead to increased substance abuse because people are bored and stressed?

Politicians, unlike doctors, have to keep the big picture – the total picture – in mind as they create policy. I don’t pretend to know what the right balance is, or where the lines should be drawn, but some balance must be determined and maintained, and hopefully those with more access to information will be able to make an informed decision.

Yes, if a policy can save one life it should be considered. But if it also costs one life, it’s a wash. And if it costs two, it’s a bad policy. No politician should be blamed for considering both sides of this coin. That, after all, is their job.  It’s not an easy one, and probably not one with a clear-cut answer. They have my sympathy, and hopefully yours too.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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