It is often said that if it saves one life, then it was worth it.
The most recent example of this comes from New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, who, on a press conference, said, “if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”
That’s a smart line for a politician. But, as noble as it may sound, a statement like that does not hold under scrutiny.
This logic completely breaks down when saving one life indirectly ends others. When we shut down the united states economy to prevent coronavirus deaths, we are indirectly making millions of Americans unemployed. Some costs of unemployment include losing your income, not being able to pay your rent or mortgage, and not knowing where your next meal will be coming from. And, in some cases, costs include drug overdose and suicide.
Food banks are seeing an unprecedented increase in demand. People that never thought they would end up having to stand in line for hours just to get a meal are doing just that. Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks around the United States, is “expecting an increase because of COVID-19 of 17 million people over the next six months (about a 40% increase).”
Keep in mind that it has been reported by the Federal Reserve that 40% of adults have difficulty covering a $400 unexpected expense. Now, imagine the struggle of being unemployed, with no income, trying to come up with cash for basic, regular expenses. On top of that, 50% to 70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck - and when you are unemployed, the paychecks stop coming.
At the time of writing, there are over 22 million Americans unemployed. According to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research and the medical journal Lancet, every 1 percent hike in the unemployment rate will likely produce a 3.3 percent increase in drug-overdose deaths and a 0.99 percent increase in suicides. It is estimated that we will have a total of 32% unemployment - that equates to 77,000 more deaths by drug overdose and suicide.
An objection to the point from the preceding paragraph might be that there is a difference between someone dying due to our actions, and someone deciding to voluntarily end his life by suicide or drug overdose. That might be a valid critique -- although one may argue that committing suicide or a drug overdose is not something that is done voluntarily. But it must also be noted that the United Nations has estimated that due to the economic lockdown, there will be around 130 million people worldwide that starve to death.
A "if we save one life" policy can end up costing the life of 130 million people.
The idea that we must do anything and everything that we can in order to save just one life is ridiculous -- especially when the cost of saving one life is ending others. Things are not black and white. Economic lockdown and stay-at-home orders come with costs. It would be foolish to ignore the costs being paid by the millions of unemployed people unable to work and unable to regularly put food on the table. It is easy for politicians and TV pundits to claim that the lockdown must continue indefinitely while they themselves go to work every day and have their refrigerators full.
As Thomas Sowell said, “It would be hard to think of a more ridiculous way to make decisions than to transfer those decisions to third parties who pay no price for being wrong.”