OP-ED: Studies Suggest The Economic Shutdown Will Cause More Deaths Than Covid-19

Across the United States and worldwide Covid-19 is causing great devastation, especially to those who have lost loved ones. As of April, 27 it is estimated to have killed approximately 200,000 people globally. What’s further disheartening is according to some of the world’s most renowned academic and governmental institutions, our COVID-19 response will likely cause a greater number of deaths than the virus itself.

The United Nations estimates that an additional 130 million people will suffer from acute hunger by the end of 2020 as a result of the economic slowdown caused by our COVID-19 mitigation strategies. “We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Arif Husain, chief economist at the United Nations World Food Program, told The New York Times. World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley, states, “There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.”

In 2015, researchers of the University of Zurich collected data from the time of the Great Recession and found that approximately 45,000 had committed suicides from unemployment in each of those years. Further, Harvard University found that the Great Recession resulted in as many as 500,000 additional cancer deaths globally due largely to delayed health care and diagnosis. As these studies are alerting us to the unintended consequences of our current stay at home orders and the accompanying recession, other troubling signs are already emerging. 

Due to stay-at-home orders, U.S. hospitals are reporting increases in child abuse cases: “This happened faster than we imagined…I mean this happened in a week and these are really bad cases of abuse,” as Christi Thornhill, a hospital director at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas said. There is also an alarming increase in spousal abuse, with “people being locked in rooms, being shot through the doors, prevented from leaving, having to stay because he’s afraid she will go out and get it. Crazy stuff,” as one domestic violence shelter’s CEO put it.

Further, if one takes into account spending by Congress and extra liquidity from the Federal Reserve, the United States has spent $6 trillion in an attempt to halt the rising unemployment and economic disruption triggered by our current stay-at-home orders. This does not include future lost revenues to federal, state and local governments from decreased tax revenues, nor lost income to each individual American. If we had adopted more targeted mitigation strategies with a sharper focus on high-risk individuals, we might still have that $6 trillion to spend in other ways. While many find it inappropriate to juxtapose economic loss to the loss of life that may have been averted by our current stay-at-home orders, spending money comes with associated opportunity costs. Meaning, lives are being lost that we could have otherwise saved.

It is estimated that, in the United States, more than 300,000 deaths are caused each year by the secondary effects of obesity, such as diabetes and hypertension. Approximately 606,000 Americans die annually from cancer; 52,000 die from opioid overdoses; 13 million American children live with families beneath the poverty threshold and over 500,000 people are homeless on any given night in the United States. For the aforementioned $6 trillion, it is likely we could have greatly reduced these problems and their associated deaths. For example, we could have chosen to increase annual federal spending on the fight against homelessness by a hundredfold (currently $2.777 billion); to increase federal annual spending on combatting the opioid crisis by a hundredfold (currently $1.8 billion); to increase federal annual spending on cancer research by a hundredfold (currently $6.44 billion); to launch the nation’s largest ever initiative to fight obesity (say $100 billion); and to eliminate childhood poverty in the United States for ten years (an estimated cost of $700 billion). With the remaining approximately $4.1 trillion, we could have chosen to end malaria forever (estimated cost between $90 and $120 billion), which would prevent an estimated 435,000 deaths annually. Then, we could end world hunger for the year for the estimated 2 billion people who do not have access to proper nutrition (estimated to cost as much as $265 billion per year), and we would still have $3.715 trillion left over. Instead, a recession likely to result from stay-at-home orders is expected to dramatically increase homelessness (as took place during the Great Recession), as well as increase deaths due to cancer, diabetes, hypertension and drug abuse, while pushing 21 million more Americans, as estimated by Columbia University’s Center for Poverty and Social Policy, into poverty.

COVID-19 has caused around 200,000 deaths and brought great tragedy to many, especially those who have lost loved ones. Thankfully, its devastation has not reached the initial estimates. So far, it has been responsible for fewer deaths than the approximately 500,000 caused each year by the flu. If we can recognize that COVID-19 is but one of many problems the world is currently facing, we can begin to implement our mitigation strategies in a more rational and holistic manner. If we continue to view COVID-19 as if in a vacuum, we may end up unintentionally causing more deaths than we are preventing.

Written by Brett Oppenheim

Edited by Yasmine Tanres

Originally Published at Merion West on 04/24/2020