Some of those who oppose loosening the draconian restrictions the government has placed on economic activity argue that the restrictions are necessary because they will save lives. That argument — while it may be made in good faith — is nevertheless profoundly blinkered and shortsighted, because the heartbreaking reality is that China’s criminal recklessness has put us between the Scylla and the Charybdis when it comes to the question of saving lives. Lives are going to be lost no matter what we do.
We can continue stifling economic activity and maybe lives will be saved (though the science on that question is far from settled). But there is a price to be paid for stifling economic activity. We are already paying it to some degree by, for example, throwing millions of people out of work and stacking trillions of dollars of debt on top of an already unsustainable debt burden. But if we push the world’s economy into a depression, we will pay a price in lives lost as well.
On April 16 the UN issued a report warning that hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world could die this year due to the global economic downturn sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, and tens of millions more could fall into extreme poverty
But if history is any guide, the deaths of those hundreds of thousands of children could be just the tip of the iceberg. In 1929 the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. Over the next 16 years, the world changed radically. Governments were restructured. Dictators arose with promises of saving the people from the economic devastation. Wars began, and the period, especially from 1937 onward, was drenched in the blood of tens of millions. No one could have predicted these events. If someone from 1945 traveled back in time to 1929 and told the story of the next decade and a half, he would have been dismissed as an outrageous fabulist.
The choice before us today is not between saving lives and callously refusing to save lives. Rather, we are faced with the dilemma of choosing which course of action will result in the fewest lives lost. Continuing the economic shutdown to save people from dying from COVID-19 will have a steep cost in lives stemming from the economic downturn. If we loosen restrictions on economic activity, we may pay a price in lives lost to the virus. Which way should we go? It is a terrible choice, but the way forward is clear. We cannot risk burning down the world’s economy. Because if we do and the UN is correct, the cost will run into the hundreds of thousands of lives of the most vulnerable – and that is a best case. We also risk unimaginable carnage such as that which came in the wake of the last Great Depression — or worse. That is a risk no sane person would take.