Finally, a politician had the guts to ask what has always been the most important question in the whole COVID-19 response debate: How much is a human life worth? It was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo who asked the question this week at one of his morning press conferences. "The fundamental question that we are not articulating," he said, "is how much is a human life worth?" As he acknowledged, "There is a cost of staying closed. An economic cost and a personal cost."
Cuomo is making an obvious point, but one that to date has not been adequately discussed or analyzed. Policymakers make this judgment all the time. They do so when they determine speed limits. They know that when they set a speed limit at 65 instead of 55, there will be more accidents and more deaths. But they balance the number of lost lives against the costs. Lower speed means less economic activity.
"Let's be honest about it and let's be open about it and let's not try camouflage the actual terms of the discussion that we are having," Cuomo said. "How much is a human life worth?"
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Cuomo knows that policymakers also weigh the value of human life when it comes to health care policy. The government weighs the cost of covering various tests and procedures for Medicare and Medicaid patients versus the number of lives they will potentially save. Policymakers also put a value on human life when determining safety standards for the workplace. The requirements must attempt to protect lives while at the same time not being so onerous as to destroy businesses.
"How much is a human life worth?" Cuomo asked again. "That's the real discussion that no one is admitting openly or freely."
Cuomo knows that policymakers also weigh the value of human life against the value of individual freedom. They know that alcohol abuse and drunk driving kill thousands every year. Yet alcohol remains legal. Dangerous activities like skiing, biking, boxing, and skydiving cause significant numbers of deaths each year, yet policymakers have not banned them.
So, Cuomo is correct. We must weigh the costs of the shutdown to our economy, to our mental and physical health and to our personal freedom, against the value of the lives saved. We know the economic costs of the shutdown are likely to be in the tens of trillions of dollars. The federal government has committed many trillions in bailouts. We are losing over a trillion dollars in GDP every month with no end in sight and no good assessment of the long-term costs from companies going out of business and job losses. We also are seeing the toll of the shutdown on health, with increased depression, domestic violence, substance abuse, reduced exercise, and delayed medical visits and procedures. And, our personal liberty has been restricted beyond any other time in the nation's history.
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So, what is the value of a human life? After posing the question multiple times, Cuomo finally answered, "I say the value of human life is priceless." Huh? Does he really mean that?
Cuomo prides himself in telling it straight. "Just the facts," he likes to say. But, with this absurd statement, not just uttered but posted on the PowerPoint slide behind him, Cuomo appeared to be just another politician, saying what he thinks will sound good.
But, it appears we must take Cuomo at his word. It appears he means it. He is actually refusing to put a value on human life, deeming it priceless. This explains his orders. We are a full 28 days past the height of hospitalizations in New York. About half of the state's 62 counties have had six or fewer COVID deaths. Yet he refuses to modify any orders, not even for these many remote counties. If you deem life priceless, this makes sense. Any loosening of the lockdown will necessarily result in more cases and more lives lost. The whole purpose of the lockdown was to reduce cases, so an end to the lockdown naturally means an increase in cases.
We now know that the shutdown was not, as Cuomo originally told us, about flattening the curve so as not to overwhelm the health care system. Rather, it was about doing everything in his power to save every possible life, regardless of the cost to our economy, freedom, or mental health.
This is a truly dangerous precedent for future policymaking. With this newly announced standard of saving as many lives as possible regardless of the costs, he has not only moved the goalposts from his originally stated objective, but has set a standard so high that it guarantees that his "cure" will indeed be far worse than the disease.