The Value of Human Life in a Time of Corona Virus (By Ashwin Tombat)

By Ashwin Tombat
29 March 2020 07:39 IST

What’s a human life worth? That’s a question which is bound to come up sooner rather than later in the midst of the most widespread health crisis the world has faced in the last 100 years.

In the USA, President Donald Trump has already asked the question.

On Sunday 22 March, he tweeted: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” The US President has proposed reopening the US economy by Easter, against the recommendations of his own public health experts.

As economic forecasts about the impact of the shutdowns on the world economy grow darker, there is more and more talk of trade-off: Is protecting people from Covid-19 really worth all the coming destitution and economic pain?

US economists are predicting an unemployment rate of 32.1 per cent for the April to June 2020 quarter. The highest ever annual average unemployment rate in US history was 24.9 per cent in 1933, during the Great Depression.

Last week, the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics projected an unprecedented 13.5 per cent year-on-year fall in industrial output. The Chinese government has not reported a year-on-year decline in economic growth since 1976.

That’s the world’s two largest economies. One of them (China) was the origin of the Novel Corona Virus outbreak and the other (the USA) has just overtaken Europe as the present global epicentre of the pandemic.

And what about India; the world’s fifth largest economy?

Experts estimate the cost of the Covid-19 lockdown at $120 billion (₹9 lakh crore) approximating to about 4 per cent of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That’s in an economy already reeling under a demand depression, rising unemployment, and falling industrial output!  

Barclays has lowered India’s 2020-21 growth forecast from 5.2 per cent to 3.5 per cent. The impact of the shutdown is going to be more severe than the 2016 Demonetisation and the 2017 GST rollout put together…  

There is a serious worldwide debate about how much destruction to the economy the world is willing to tolerate to save lives from Covid-19. How many small businesses will go bankrupt? How many millions of workers will become unemployed? IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said on Friday that the world has already entered a recession that will be worse than the 2008 global meltdown. 

It may seem cynical and hard hearted to assess the cost against the risk of policies when lives are at stake. But in reality, governments do make decisions all the time on the basis of economic cost versus lives saved.

For example, if the goal was to prevent unnatural death at any cost, then the first step would be to ban people from driving vehicles. There is one serious road accident in India every minute; 16 people die in road accidents every hour – 377 people die every day. Still, nobody ever even remotely considers banning vehicles, because the economic benefit of reliable transportation is an acceptable trade-off for the cost of deaths on the road. 

Harvard Professor of Global Health Dr Vikram Patel has pointed out in a recent article that even as far as respiratory diseases go, Covid-19 is no match for TB. In 2018 alone, over 4 lakh Indians died of TB – that is over 10 times Covid-19 deaths the world over at the time of writing.

Unlike in Italy, where all non-essential businesses were closed last weekend to slow the spread of Covid-19, the French government has called on companies to stay open, even if they are not in essential services. In Sweden, businessmen, scientists and journalists continue to argue over whether anti-virus measures are worth the economic damage they cause.

But India has chosen to save lives. “Jaan hai to jahan hai,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, as he announced the 21-day countrywide lockdown to defeat Covid-19, effectively drawing a Laxman-Rekha at every citizen’s doorstep. But the economic price the common man is going to have to pay for this lockdown will be very, very high indeed.

The relief package of ₹1.7 lakh crore announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman amounts to a mere $23 billion. Compare this with the relief package of over $2,200 billion announced by the USA, $200 billion announced by the UK or even $45 billion announced by Italy, whose economy is much smaller than India’s. Canada, whose tiny population is around the same as Delhi’s National Capital Region (NCR), is offering $27 billion in subsidies and $55 billion in credit as Covid-19 relief.

Pakistan has announced a package of Pak Rs1.25 lakh crore for Covid-19. Considering that the Pakistan rupee is worth half an Indian rupee, it is giving just over one-third of India’s relief package. But its population is around one-sixth of India. This means that per capita, Pakistan is giving its Covid-19 affected people double what India is giving.

India needs to do much better…

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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