Coronavirus has us weighing one set of lives against another

Let’s put the question bluntly. How much poverty should we be prepared to inflict on ourselves to contain the spread of the virus? At what point will the preventative measures cause more deaths — or, to be precise, cause more QALY to be lost — than the disease itself?

The short answer is that no one yet knows, because there are so many imponderables. No one can say how harmful the coronavirus would be if left unchecked. And although we can put a rough price tag on the bailouts, we can only guess at the indirect costs associated with lost productivity and misallocated resources.

A few brave economists and commentators have had a go anyway. At the National Review, Robert VerBruggen notes that we have no idea what the counterfactual is — in other words, how much economic damage would happen anyway because of people staying away from restaurants and stores without any government instructions. Nor do we know what would have happened to the economy even without the virus. Then again, “we do have a few estimates we can stitch together, and we’re all inside and bored, so why not?” According to VerBruggen’s necessarily sketchy approximations, the economic damage that would be caused by hospitalizations and deaths would be much worse than that caused by the containment strategy.