Donald Trump is half-right.
At Monday’s news conference, Trump correctly noted that our society balances human lives against other values (freedom, prosperity, profit) all the time. We do it every time we set a speed limit, knowing full well that letting people drive faster will cause some of those people—and their innocent victims—to die.
But when you run the numbers on the novel coronavirus, Trump is laughably, tragically wrong.
Let’s imagine a world in which Trump was right. Maybe 100,000 deaths from coronavirus if we keep the shutdowns in place through June, but 150,000 if we end them in “weeks, not months,” as Trump said repeatedly at the presser.
That would still be an ethical quandary, but it wouldn’t be outside the realm of reason. Around 35,000 people die each year in car accidents, and many more are injured. And yes, as Trump seems intent on reminding us, 50,000 will likely die from the flu this year.
But those numbers are fantasy.
The low end, conservative estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is 200,000 American deaths from COVID-19. The high end is nearly 2 million. And the main difference between them—i.e., what determines whether 1.8 million people live or die, or about 50 years worth of car crashes—is how stringent our rules are on social distancing, quarantine, testing, and treatment.
So the trouble when Trump tweets that "WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF” is that the problem is as much as 20 times bigger than he’s willing to acknowledge.
We’ve already blown it on testing. Our best chance of containing the virus, as South Korea has done, was to test as many people as possible as early as possible. That was still an option last month, but that’s when Trump said that when the weather gets warmer, coronavirus “miraculously goes away” and the situation was “very much under control.” Both entirely false, of course.
And it looks like we’re about to blow it on treatment, with insufficient supplies, ventilator equipment, hospital beds, health care workers, and just about everything and everyone else needed to care for all those afflicted. For God’s sake, we don’t even have enough gloves.
That leaves the painful, awful, miserable, and life-wrecking shutdown of life as we know it, which nearly half of Americans are already experiencing. It’s a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions, at least in the lifespan of anyone reading these words. It will ruin the lives of millions of people, and I can’t bear to think of its long-term impact on children.
But to end that catastrophe means killing up to two million people. Not a few thousand.
So, is it worth it?
Believe it or not, the numbers aren’t entirely unprecedented. Congress is poised to pass a $1.8 trillion package of bailouts and aid. Now, suppose the difference between a three-month and a three-week shutdown is another $2 trillion. $2 trillion to save a million lives—that’s around $2 million each.
That’s actually a lot cheaper than the figures that have been used (prior to the Trump administration, anyway) by administrative agencies. In 2010, the EPA set a price of $9.1 million per life when setting air pollution levels, while the FDA set a price of $7.9 million when regulating cigarette packaging.
There’s a crucial difference, however.
It’s one thing to have some mathematical construct in place to value human lives buried in the code of federal regulations. It’s another to preside over the deaths of millions of people.
And that’s the main problem. Trump is acting like today’s numbers are the extent of this catastrophe. But as bad as things are now, as much as our lives have been disrupted, we’re just getting started on the growth curve.
This is the calm before the storm. Not the time to throw away the umbrella.