Let’s not bury the lead – statistically speaking and according to our non-scientific calculations, the value of the lives potentially saved by a government’s COVID-19 suppression measures outweigh the damage to Cayman’s economy.
You’ll see below how we arrive at that conclusion.
Premier Alden McLaughlin over the past three months has remained steadfast in his support for stringent coronavirus-suppression measures, even in the face of mounting pressure to open the economy sooner.
“We are not prepared to sacrifice any life just to get business back to normal,” he said at a government press conference last month, while acknowledging many businesses have been “crippled” due to the suppression measures.
Not everyone agrees with him and McLaughlin has several times lamented calls to ease restrictions at a faster pace in the name of economic recovery.
“It is deeply concerning to me and to us all, when we see and hear some of the very narcissistic comments that are made which contend that essentially we should just let the elderly and the vulnerable people die,” he has said.
Instead, McLaughlin’s government has continued to reopen the economy bit by bit. Many businesses have been able to open at this point, albeit while having to meet several physical-distancing and regulatory requirements. Others remain closed, their owners and employees desperate to reopen their doors.
As Cayman’s businesses start the journey to regain their footing, the question remains – was the lockdown worth the potential lives saved?
The important thing to note – as economists around the world will agree – we’re simply talking the value of life as a statistical figure here.
To answer that question, we first need to settle on a ‘value of statistical life’ for those living here. The Cayman Islands does not have an official VSL used by government entities. The figure varies in the United States, but the Environmental Protection Agency uses a VSL equivalent to $6.1 million. In the UK, the generally accepted amount is around $1.9 million.
Let’s average those two out and say that, statistically speaking, the value of a life in Cayman is $4 million.
Public health officials have estimated that up to 910 people in Cayman could have died due to COVID-19 with no suppression measures. Those figures are based on modelling done by the Ministry of Health.
That’s $3.64 billion worth of statistical lives saved.
Last month, Finance Minister Roy McTaggart said Cayman’s gross domestic product could fall up to 12.2% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing suppression measures. The latest GDP figures for Cayman provided by the Economics and Statistics Office are from 2018. That figure puts Cayman’s GDP at $4.35 billion.
Assuming the 2020 GDP normally would’ve been in that ballpark, a 12.2% drop would mean a loss of roughly $530 million.
By our – admittedly rudimentary – calculations, the lockdown was worth the lives it potentially saved.
Statistically, the tipping point appears to be right around 132.5 people. If the suppression measures saved at least 133 people, it still makes sense statistically to have shut down the economy.
Of course, these calculations are flawed for many reasons.
For one, averaging VSLs used in the US and UK does not reflect an accurate VSL for the Cayman Islands.
Our calculations also do not take into consideration economic fallout beyond 2020 nor variables such as the development of a vaccine or whether the initial forecasts of potential death rates were even accurate.
While the main purpose of such statistical analysis is not to weigh the value of one life against another, doctors in the countries most severely impacted by the virus have been forced to make such cold calculations. When health services were overwhelmed in Italy, access to potentially life-saving equipment – like ventilators – had to be rationed.
Italian doctors were given guidelines to prioritise those with the greatest chance of successful treatment and suggested it “may be necessary” to place an age limit on those being admitted to intensive care.
“The top consideration is maximising benefits in terms of the number of lives saved and the number of life years saved,” Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, co-author of a set of ethical guidelines on rationing access to limited resources during COVID-19, told the BBC.
Though those considerations focussed on age and health rather than the financial value of a life, the same ethical questions are at play.
How do you measure the value of a life?
Thankfully, the measures taken in Cayman appear to have suppressed the virus to the point where this can remain a theoretical debate.