March 26, 2020 10:27:28 AM
WASHINGTON -- The contrast could hardly be more stark. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has said that if all of his sweeping, expensive measures to stem the coronavirus saved one life, it would be worth it. President Donald Trump has another view: The costs of shutting down the economy outweigh the benefits, frequently telling Americans that 35,000 people a year die from the common flu.
Though it may seem crass, the federal government actually has long made a calculation when imposing regulations, called "the value of a statistical life," that places a price tag on a human life. It has been used to consider whether to require seat belts, airbags or environmental regulations, but it has never been applied in a broad public health context.
The question is now an urgent one given that Trump in recent days has latched on to the notion that the cure for the pandemic should not be worse than the disease and argued that "more people are going to die if we allow this to continue" if the economy remains closed. He has targeted a return a semblance of normalcy for the economy by Easter Sunday, April 12.
Critics say he's presenting the nation with a false choice at a moment when deaths and infections from the virus are surging.
"We're not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable," said Cuomo, whose state has seen far more infections and deaths from COVID-19 than any other state. "And we're not going to put a dollar figure on human life."
For decades, the federal government has made calculations on how policies intended to safeguard American health could impact the economy. Since the Reagan administration, federal agencies have been required to perform analysis of any proposed regulations that are expected to have $100 million or more impact on the economy.
The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, conducts cost-benefit analysis to estimate in dollar terms how much people are willing to pay for reductions in their risk of death from adverse health conditions caused by pollution. The Transportation Department estimates the additional cost that consumers would be willing to bear for improvements in safety at $9.6 million.
Now, the push-pull of when to re-open the economy during the coronavirus crisis centers on a similarly bleak question: What's an economically acceptable death toll? Putting dollar figures on the value of life and health is inherently uncomfortable, one expert said.
"People hate that question," said Betsey Stevenson, an economics and public policy professor at the University of Michigan who served on the White House's Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. "By laying out the math in such a crude way, people cringe when they see it."
Days into his own call for Americans to dedicate themselves for 15 days to social distancing, including staying home from work and closing bars and restaurants to help try to stall the spread of the disease, Trump has changed his tune.
Trump has grumbled that "our country wasn't built to be shut down" and vowed not to allow "the cure be worse than the problem."
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