Comparing Lives to Lives

Commentary, COVID-19, Economy, Karen Selick

Sometimes I wonder what people will say 100 years from now about the unprecedented events of 2020—not just about the pandemic, but about the extraordinary legal and economic measures imposed by governments around the world, purportedly for the purpose of saving lives. Will our great-great grandchildren placidly accept today’s official government story—that a lockdown of the economy was the only way to “flatten the curve” and save lives? Or will they wonder what on earth their forebears were thinking of to permit such a colossal blunder, when there was already abundant knowledge about the kind of economic and social havoc such measures would wreak?

Alarming information has already started rolling in about the financial cost of the pandemic-related shutdowns. The April data from Statistics Canada shows a 15.7 percent decline in employment since February. The Parliamentary Budget Office has forecast a possible decline in GDP of as much as 25 percent in the second quarter of this year. This would be a worse decline than ever before, including during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Many people argue that the lockdowns were—and still are—necessary, using an argument that goes something like this: you can’t weigh dollars lost against human lives lost. Or they say every life is so precious that its value can’t be measured against money. These people don’t seem to have noticed that our society routinely conducts precisely this weighing act in a variety of situations.

For instance, in civil litigation we compensate the families of people killed through negligence or malevolence in the only way possible: by an award of money. Economists have used a concept called VSL (“value of statistical life”) for several decades when trying to determine the optimal level of safety regulations. Essentially, it involves placing a limit on how much more to spend on safety by trying to determine what it would cost to save one additional life. Currently, the value is placed at between US$6.7 million and US$10 million per life.

Nobody ever feels entirely comfortable with these concepts. Everybody recognizes that if it were your child, or your spouse whose life were on the line, the amount of compensation you’d require might be virtually infinite. However, the chaos of the pandemic should not make us lose sight of the fact that we do consistently make trade-offs like these in everyday life, and a new risk on the horizon is no reason to depart from established practices of risk/reward valuation.

But regardless of how distasteful it may be to weigh lives against money, there should be no question of the legitimacy of weighing lives against lives. More specifically, we can and should weigh the lives that the lockdowns will purportedly save from COVID-19 against the lives that the very same lockdowns will probably terminate prematurely.

Fortunately, the Fraser Institute (“FI”) has provided us with a tool that will allow us to make reasonable, evidence-based estimates of the number of deaths that will probably arise from the economic disaster that recent government edicts have triggered.

Ever since 1996, FI has published an annual report entitled Economic Freedom of the World. The most recent edition, published in September 2019 and dealing with statistics from the year 2017, can be found here. Researchers collect data annually from 162 countries, examining 42 items of economic policy in each country. Each item is ranked on a scale from zero to ten, according to the degree of freedom the country allows to its citizens, with 10 being the maximum amount of freedom for that issue. The 42 items are then averaged into a single score on a scale of 10. Canada, for instance, scored 8.07 out of 10 on the economic freedom score in 2017, which placed it in eighth position among all of the countries ranked.

Figure 1 shows the countries of the world ranked according to their economic freedom score. The 162 countries are divided into four quartiles, from the most free (shown here in teal) to the least free (shown in red).

The report then shows the average per capita income by quartile, in its Exhibit 1.6. Unsurprisingly, the quartile that has the most economic freedom also has the highest per capita income, and so on down the line.

The next graph (Exhibit 1.7 in the FI report) shows the correlation between economic freedom and life expectancy. It shows that countries in the most free quartile (such as Canada) have an average life expectancy of 79.4 years. Countries in the second-freest quartile have a life expectancy of only 74.08 years—5.32 years shorter than those in the freest quartile.

This makes sense because we know that even within a country, health is positively correlated with wealth. The Ontario agency known as Health Quality Ontario has published this report analyzing the factors that appear to produce better health outcomes. Figure 3.1 (reproduced here) shows the health status of Ontario’s population, divided into income quintiles. In the richest quintile of the population, fully 72.9 percent of those surveyed reported that their health was excellent or very good. In the poorest quintile, only 49.4 percent reported similar good health.

Therefore, if reducing economic freedom results in a reduction of income, it is also statistically likely to result in a reduction of health, with a consequent reduction in life expectancy.

Here are the implications FI Exhibit 1.7. If Canada’s economic freedom remains impaired sufficiently to move it down to the same freedom rating as previously prevailed in the second-highest quartile, we can expect the average life expectancy of our citizens to decline by an average of 5.32 years, to 74.08. As of 2019, there were 37,590,000 people living in Canada. If each of them loses 5.32 years of life due to constraints on economic freedom, the resulting number of person-years lost would be 199,978,800. That is the equivalent of 2,518,625 lifetimes at the old average rate of 79.4 years per person.

Did you get that? The decline in our economic freedom could be expected to produce a decline in human life equivalent to the deaths of 2.5 million people. That’s far worse than anything ever projected for COVID-19.

But maybe you think that’s not a realistic comparison, because nobody actually dies due to economic regulation. They just don’t live as long. In other words, they die earlier.

But exactly the same thing could be said of COVID-19 victims. Overwhelmingly, the people who have been dying of COVID-19 have been elderly. More than 90 percent of the Canadians who have allegedly died of it have been over age 60, and fully half of all victims have been residents of long-term care homes. Statistics for the life expectancy of individuals in Canadian long-term care homes seem to be a closely guarded secret, but here’s a website in South Carolina that says the average length of stay in assisted living is 28 or 29 months (about 2.4 years). Most don’t leave alive and go back to live at their former private homes. Their residency in the care home almost always ends in their death.

This study from Finland says that the average life expectancy of individuals in long-term care is a mere 2.07 years for men and 2.70 years for women.

Therefore, when COVID-19 claims the life of someone in a long-term care home, it’s shortening the life of someone whose life expectancy was already extremely short. Keep in mind that the people in long-term care homes are individuals with chronic, severe illnesses. Their quality of life is already very poor. If they die in March when they would otherwise have died in September, does anyone really consider this a terrible tragedy?

During the 24 years when I practiced estate law and prepared wills and powers of attorney for hundreds of clients, I routinely received instructions from people that they did not want their lives to be prolonged when all hope of a normal, fully functional existence had disappeared. People didn’t want to be the pathetic old man or woman languishing in pain or mental confusion, waiting for death to mercifully claim them.

Canada has allegedly had 5,679 deaths from COVID-19 at the time I wrote this. (Incidentally, there is some doubt about the accuracy of this figure because of several reports—especially from the U.S. and Italy—that doctors are being pressured to put COVID-19 as the cause of death on people’s death certificates when they actually died of some other chronic, long-term illness. Here is one U.S. discussion of this issue, and here’s one from Italy.)

Nevertheless, if we accept the accuracy of the “official” death toll, and if half of those victims were in long-term care homes and lost the maximum 2.70 years of life they might have expected there, the loss would still be (so far) only 7,667 person-years. Even if the other half of the victims lost 50 years of life each, that would add only 141,975 person-years to the total lost—only a tiny fraction of the almost 200 million person-years that we can expect to lose due to the adverse economic results.

The FI report gives us one more interesting graph to look at. Exhibit 1.8 shows infant mortality by quartile: that is, the number of infants who die before reaching one year of age per 1,000 live births. In the most free quartile where Canada has always dwelt, the average rate in 2016 was only 6.67 infants. In the second-freest quartile, infant mortality jumped all the way up to 15.35 per 1,000.

In other words, if Canada descends to the level of economic freedom prevailing at what was formerly the second-freest quartile, it can expect to see an additional 8.68 babies die in their first year for every 1,000 live births (15.35-6.67=8.68).

There were 382,533 children born in Canada in 2019. If an additional 8.68 babies were to die per 1,000 live births, that means that 3,320 additional infants would be expected to die (382.533 x 8.68 = 3,320). They would lose their entire lives, not merely the last 2.7 years that would otherwise be spent in a nursing home. This would be a loss of 263,608 person-years. This is more than three times the number that COVID-19 is expected to claim.

Many commentators have now begun to remark that the economic cost of the lockdowns has been excessive. These figures corroborate their opinion, stated in terms that no-one should be able to argue with: the lives lost if lockdowns continue will far exceed the lives saved.

What’s especially galling to me is that all government efforts at saving lives has been directed towards keeping people from coming into contact with the coronavirus. We’re told to stay away from other people, wash our hands frequently, wear gloves and masks, don’t touch our faces, and so on. There is another completely different strategy which governments around the world, including Canada’s, have ignored entirely: namely, inform people about how to optimize the functioning of their immune systems by ensuring that they have the nutrients crucial to this purpose.

Most people who get COVID-19 infections manage to recover quickly, without any lasting problems. Their innate immune systems are able to defeat the infection. There is abundant research on what nutrients are essential to a properly functioning immune system: specifically, vitamins C and D, iodine, and zinc. Canadians are well known to be chronically deficient in vitamin D, and have been told by Health Canada for years to stay out of the sun, thereby foregoing the benefit of getting vitamin D for free.

The government could save far more lives if it would divert some of its advertising budget away from telling people to wash their hands and tell them instead to take adequate vitamins and minerals.

 

Karen Selick obtained her LL.B. (Bachelor of Laws) degree at the University of Toronto in 1976. She retired from practicing law in 2015 and then spent two years studying holistic nutrition at the Edison Institute of Nutrition. She has been a freelance writer for over 30 years. Her work has appeared in The Freeman, Fraser Forum, the National Post, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Lawyer magazine, and elsewhere.

Copyright © Karen Selick

 

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