The Covid-19 pandemic forces us to make an unsavoury calculation that most of us perform without realising. What is a life worth: how much pleasure are we willing to forego in order to save a life?
You might balk at the equation. Lives are infinitely important; you’d do `whatever it takes’ to save just one. But let’s not kid ourselves: if that’s the right answer, it’s not the one that most people come up with.
In the last three months, there have been one-hundred thousand deaths globally from Covid-19. In the same period, there have been (or would have been were we not all cowering inside), three-hundred thousand deaths on the road. Yet many of you get in a car to go to the shops, to school or even to the hairdressers. We are willing to risk lives to do what we want to do.
The current lockdown imposes costs on all of us. There are young men and women who might have enjoyed their first kiss this spring; instead they will stay inside and play on their phones. Some of those who lose their jobs will never find another role so fulfilling, and some will never regain employment. Even those who die miss out on something important when their family isn’t at their death bed.
So, how do we judge what a life is worth and whether a risk is worth taking?
The NHS has to make such decisions all the time. They have a finite budget. If they blow it all on an expensive wonder drug for lung cancer, they wouldn’t have the money to treat heart disease. So they put a figure on your life. At the moment, it’s roughly £20,000 for a year of good health (and proportionately less for a year in pain).
That decision is taken on our behalf. If you think the fun you could have with £20,000 is worth more than an extra year of life, you’d logically want taxes to fall and the NHS to be funded less; if you think your pleasure is less important and people’s lives are worth more, you’d want the opposite.
But most of us don’t use such spreadsheets. The pandemic is a case in point. One influential model suggests that, if unchecked, 260,000 Brits might die as a result of the virus. Let’s say that the average victim would have had ten healthy years left (perhaps optimistic as many of those who die have underlying health conditions) and that the current lockdown will save them all (also an optimistic assumption).
On the NHS value, saving those lives is worth £52bn. That’s just under £800 per UK citizen. Yet the government has announced spending of £60bn to counter the economic effects of the coronavirus, and this is on top of the harder to quantify costs of missed school days, lonely death beds and foregone kisses.
It seems that society is willing to bear a far higher cost to save lives from Covid-19 than to save them from other diseases. This might not mean that the cost is too high; it might be that we’re usually too ready to let people die. But the difference can at least partly by explained by well-known psychological biases.
One of the reasons might be the way that we judge risks. Classic experiments show we overestimate the risks of things we can easily recall. Newspapers are more likely to report terrorist attacks, grisly murders and tornadoes than more mundane killers, and so we think them more likely to happen than they are.
Other studies suggest that we perceive risks as greater the more emotionally charged they are; the more sensational. A global pandemic that dominates the news and has us trapped in our houses ticks both boxes: we can’t avoid reading about, talking about or fearing it.
These biases are supremely irrational: they are a long way from the cold calculations of the NHS bean counters. But perhaps it’s a good thing that we work like that.
In most risk-pleasure trade-offs, we are free to make our own choice. I love cornering on a motorbike; I know it might kill me, but the buzz is one of the reasons I’m glad to be alive. You might think the danger outweighs the joy. Perhaps you drink too much, swim in the ocean, eat bacon sandwiches or smoke.
With communicable diseases, it’s important that everybody makes the same choice. It’s no good nine-tenths of the population staying indoors and washing their hands whilst the other tenth kiss on park benches.
So it’s pleasing that the British have cohered around a position. A recent poll claims that only 4% disapprove of the recent measures, and only half of those strongly disapprove.
This unanimity might not say much for our rationality or our independence. But it says a lot for our ability to pull together when we need to.
Dr Chris Paley is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.
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