This week, President Trump floated the idea of easing up on social distancing measures on the theory that the damage caused by shutting down the economy might be greater than the cost of letting the virus run its course—some models suggest, however, that reopening the economy too soon could be exponentially more expensive.
- If the United States were to abandon aggressive social distancing measures after 14 days, more than 125 million people will contract the virus, some 7 million could be hospitalized, and 1.9 million people will die (accounting for other factors like infectiousness and hospitalization rates), according to a model built by the New York Times.
- If social distancing goes on for two months, the model predicts that 14 million will contract the virus, with fewer than 100,000 deaths.
- There’s no debate that the broader economy is going to suffer even at the current rate of spread. Morgan Stanley is predicting a 30% drop in GDP next quarter. U.S. GDP is currently $21.43 trillion. A drop of 30% would mean a value-loss of more than $6.4 trillion (for context, the economic relief bill signed by President Trump this afternoon is worth about $2 trillion).
- If the outbreak worsens due to relaxed social distancing measures, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate even greater economic losses.
- Economists can calculate the average value of one life saved using a model called the value of a statistical life. It’s a fuzzy metric used by some government agencies that is based on how much a person is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death. Right now, that figure hovers around $10 million.
- “If we could prevent a million deaths, at the usual way we value [them] of around $10 million each, that’s $10 trillion, which is half of GDP,” says James Hammitt, a professor of economics in Harvard’s health policy department.
- University of Chicago economists have arrived at a similar conclusion: they’ve found that under “moderate” social distancing measures, 1.7 million lives and at least $7.9 trillion could be saved.
Big number: The average cost of a hospital stay for a mild case of pneumonia is $9,763, according to Peterson-KFF analysis (pneumonia is commonly associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus). The median total cost balloons to $88,114 for the most severe cases that require more than four days of ventilator support. Seven million hospitalizations for patients with mild cases would cost more than $68 billion. If 17% of those patients required ventilator support, as was the case in one Chinese study, the cost of hospitalizations alone could add up to a staggering $161 billion, and that’s before the cost of other health complications related to the virus is accounted for.
Crucial quote: “Anything that slows the rate of the virus is the best thing you can do for the economy, even if by conventional measures it’s bad for the economy,” University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee told the New York Times.
Key background: In some ways, all of this discourse is more than a century old. A new paper released yesterday found that during the1918 flu pandemic—the closest historical analogue for the current coronavirus outbreak—cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing and isolation of cases suffered no greater economic damage than those that didn’t. “On the contrary,” the authors write, “cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experience a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic.” Seattle, Oakland, Omaha, and Los Angeles, for instance, implemented stronger containment measures than Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Philadelphia and all saw a much larger surge in job growth after the crisis was over in 1920.
Tangent: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested earlier this week that grandparents might be willing to die to preserve the economy for their grandchildren. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” he said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” His and Trump’s comments sparked a backlash among progressives on social media on Tuesday, when the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet trended on Twitter as users voiced their fears of the pandemic, and of the government’s response to it. “I’ll let Wall Street flat line before my grandma does,” wrote one Twitter user.
– Sarah Hansen, Forbes Staff