The term "value of statistical life" is a figure used to help economists perform cost-benefit analysis. Many question the morality of performing calculations using VSL, however, because it can appear to associate a monetary value to human life.

Through the Cayman Compass series examining the cost of economic lockdown versus the cost of saving lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve explained the term value of statistical life, calculated a VSL for the Cayman Islands and determined that shutting down Cayman’s economy was worth the value of the lives potentially saved.

The question now is: Were we right to do so?

Caribbean economist Marla Dukharan

“It is not my place to take a moral or ethical stance or to impose my values in commenting on this matter, as the choices obviously rest with the administration of any country to make the choices it feels are appropriate given its political economy and socio-economic situation,”  Caribbean economist Marla Dukharan told the Cayman Compass in response to a question regarding whether it’s morally appropriate to perform such calculations.

“To me, the response to this situation is more art than science.”
– Marla Dukharan, Caribbean economist

“The formula that may work in Cayman may not work in Jamaica, for example. You must have heard (Prime Minister Andrew) Holness acknowledge that many people in Jamaica don’t have the means to buy weeks’ worth of food and stockpile for a long lockdown. This may not be the case in Cayman, for example, so the approach can justifiably be a bit different,” she said.

Series examining lives vs. economy
Was Cayman’s economic lockdown worth it?
What is value of statistical life?

Economists are quick to point out a VSL does not represent the value of a person’s life. It does not take into account many intangibles like a person’s potential, intelligence, sense of humour, smile, loved ones or plans for the future. It’s a value that ignores many of the intrinsic characteristics that make us uniquely human.

Yet the values have real-life consequences for consumers, who may bristle at the notion that a human life can be assigned a monetary value.

“To me, the response to this situation is more art than science,” Dukharan said. “Too much uniqueness to make sweeping generalisations. But I understand the point in trying to determine just what the tradeoff really looks like – lives versus livelihoods.”

“Personally,” she added, ” I place a high value on life.”

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