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crazyguy's avatar

What is the value of a human life in covid decisions?

Asked by crazyguy (1112points) 1 month ago

I realize this question will shock many decent human beings. In fact, my wife gets on my case all the time for even thinking in terms of calculating the value of a life.

However, let us be realistic. If our ONLY purpose in life was to preserve human life at all costs, we may do some or all of the following:
1. Reduce speed limits.
2. Cancel FDA approval of most chemical substances, including artificial sweeteners.
3. Quarantine ANYBODY with flu-like symptoms; not because it may be covid, but because flu kills just as well.
4. Ban beef.
5. Ban flying.

Since we don’t, we implicitly perform a mental calculation and determine the risks can be justified.

The same calculus has to be applied to our recommendations for dealing with covid-19. We can estimate the economic impact of a lockdown and can estimate the number of lives that might be saved. Then it becomes simple arithmetic.

Do you think such a rational approach can be utilized?

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13 Answers

RedDeerGuy1's avatar

Actuary’s are mathematicians who calculate such things.

janbb's avatar

Depends on whose life we’re talking about; mine and my kids are invaluable, yours, or anybody else’s, not as much.

crazyguy's avatar

@RedDeerGuy1 I believe actuaries are more concerned with annuity payments rather than the value of a life, but I am not certain.

crazyguy's avatar

@janbb LOL I realize the indispensable nature of some lives; although my old-time boss was fond of saying: “The graveyards are full of indispensable people!” I worked on many projects to determine hazards in design; we used a numerical scale of 1–5 to determine the probability of an accident; and then we assigned a value of 1–4 for potential damage. The most likely causes were deemed to be 4 or 5. The unlikely ones were 1 or 2. The damage, which included loss of life, was also categorized in terms of severity. 1 or 2 was severe, with 3 and 4 not involving any loss of life.

If a potential accident was a 1 on likelihood, potential consequences were less important than if the accident were considered more likely. However, every possible accident was fully explored and corrective actions listed. If the corrective action exceeded a certain dollar amount, and the accident required a multitude of things to go wrong, nothing was done. And so on.

A typical rule of thumb was about two million dollars for a US life, and lower amounts for lives in other countries.

I would think similar analyses could be done for clocking down certain segments of the economy.

kritiper's avatar

Human lives and their value is dependent on what field is involved. A human life cannot be valued until a certain amount of money is spent, whatever that amount is. Like a sickness. Or automobiles, Or airplanes. Any amount of money is more important than a human life. It’s called “cost effectiveness.” (IMO)

gorillapaws's avatar

@crazyguy “Do you think such a rational approach can be utilized?”

Sure, but you’re radically oversimplifying the math on more than a few things here.

1. Even if we say “lockdown is over, go do whatever the fuck you want,” there’s going to be PLENTY of people who refuse to do so, despite being allowed to do so—it’s legal to fart in jars and sniff them later, but I don’t believe many people exercise that particular liberty. Which means, the economy is STILL going to be severely fucked up by this thing, even if you open the floodgates.

2. Furthermore, this is going to cause an explosion in COVID cases (remember viral growth is exponential in a population and the final value is highly dependent on the rate of spread and number of cycles). Our hospitals have a fixed capacity. It might be able to expand a little bit, but there is a hard limit on how many people are going to be able to receive treatment, and this influx of COVID patients will dramatically increase deaths from non-COVID causes as well.

2a. We now know that some COVID patients can occupy that bed, ventilator, and healthcare staff time for months (not weeks). That means our capacity to handle a worse-case scenario is even more crippled.

2b. Significantly more providers will get sick in a worse-case scenario. This further restricts the ability to treat patients, causing even more of a shortage of healthcare resources. It creates a feedback loop that exacerbates (2) and ultimately will lead to more of (1) as death tolls explode.

3. There may be a dollar value on a person, but that doesn’t fully capture the impact on the economy from their death. For example at our surgical practice there are 10 people who are directly dependant on the surgeon not dying. If he dies that’s 10 people out-of-work, and 7-figures not being pumped back into the economy in the form of salaries, taxes, retirement/financial services, medical supplies, devices and equipment, IT and software purchases, medical billing services, business phone, internet, and call answering services, staff training courses (e.g. CPR, CME conferences, etc), insurance (for the staff, business, malpractice), legal and accounting, marketing expenses(Google, YouTube, local TV ads etc.), uniforms, medical laundry and medical waste disposal, rent, etc. Now each of THOSE expenses all use the revenue from our company on whatever their company needs. The result is a multiplication of money across the entire system. If our provider gets sick and dies (or even if he survives but can’t work for a prolonged period) our office will go under and all of that money, plus the ripples it generates in the broader economy vanishes.

3b. Well, you say, obviously he’s a surgeon so he’s a lot more important and by weighting rich people more, it will capture that. But it works in the inverse as well. Poor people have debt and when they die that debt is defaulted on. Most debt packages are still bundled and based on assumptions about rates of default . Widespread debt defaulting can and has brought this country to it’s knees financially. This can create a cascade of failures in the market. Maybe our company is surviving ok, but if a large-enough percentage of our outstanding accounts receivables defaults (because they died or lost their job from the cascading economic failures), then we go under and we’re back at 3.

4. As economy collapses, people begin doing desperate things and we could see an increased rate of injury/death and property damage as a result. So this is an additional feedback loop that is created via social disorder. People will be forced to not social-distance (because they’ve been evicted and are now packed into shelters) which spreads the virus faster.

5. There is a lasting impact on survivors. COVID will have long-term health impacts on survivors and increase medical costs in the future, limit their professional opportunities for some people and otherwise generate costly long-term economic consequences.

So if you were able to model all of those feedback mechanisms, and capture the full economic impacts, I’m very sure the math would absolutely vindicate the idea of masks and lockdowns as being the MUCH CHEAPER option.

gorillapaws's avatar

Just to further clarify 3b, if you had 10,000 people in the bottom 10% financially and your formula calculated they were worth 50,000 each in terms of the value of their lives plus the cost of their debt. That would mean that would put their collective value at $0.5 Billion, but what if the 10,001th person (call him “Bobo”) dies and his debt is the final amount that caused the credit default swap pool that his debt had been sold into to fail, and then that collapse is the final straw that breaks the back of a major financial institution like Wells Fargo, and then that causes a cascade of failures in the financial sector that costs $10’s of Trillions over the next several years. Do we value “Bobo” as worth $10x Trillion? He’d be the most valuable corpse in history despite being buried in a communal grave pit because he had no money.

seawulf575's avatar

I’ve known some people I value very much. Others, I might say were worth $3.23 at most.

crazyguy's avatar

@gorillapaws Thanks for a well-constructed answer.

Even if we could do it, I am not thinking in terms of valuing a life based on the person’s qualifications and/or age. My reasons for not going into that sticky wicket are as follows:

1. We have no idea who may die and how many of a certain category might die.
2. I truly believe a person’s value is more than the present value of his/her lifetime earnings.

Another general point about your answer. You have taken the economic impact of a person that dies; not a person who becomes unemployed.

The basic premise of my question is (I do not know if this came through in the question as asked): Just how much of an economic hit is justifiable to save 1,000 lives, 5,000 lives, 100,000 lives?

I get your point about farting in jars (a great example!) and not everybody doing whatever the fuck they want. However, you follow this up with: “this is going to cause an explosion in Covid cases”. I give the population more credit than you seem to.

The consequential impacts you have elaborated so well apply in both cases: whether somebody dies, or becomes unemployed.

crazyguy's avatar

@seawulf575 LOL Care to come up with an average?

Caravanfan's avatar

The answer is complicated and it depends on the situation. All life is valuable. Many people do not want their lives artificially prolonged, and we do our best to make them comfortable. Covid is no different except in its behavior as a disease process.

seawulf575's avatar

@crazyguy I think if you wanted to actually dig up a valid number, you could look at settlements of civil suits in wrongful death cases. Again, it would probably vary based not on the worth of the person killed, but by the wealth of the person (or company) being sued. Look at the Hinkley CA case (Erin Brockovich). PG&E settled for $333M but there were 600 plaintiffs. You do the math….I got $555k per person and that includes some that died. So I guess you could use $500k as the legally agreeable price of a human life.

Call_Me_Jay's avatar

In life insurance, “value of human life” is a calculation of a person’s potential future earnings. You would buy enough insurance to replace that if the person dies.

The alternative is the “needs” calculation. What would the family need to continue after the breadwinner’s demise – housing, food, clothing, tuition, etc.? You would base your insurance amount on that.

(I took the exams for an insurance license last week.)

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