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The value of life

If you party for four days, strict abstinence for the remaining three days will probably not get you off the hook. In substance, you have a lockdown or you don’t – the virus is not going to take “off days” whilst its hosts go on a shopping spree, so this debate is now useless. The lockdown is over, we have already decided that Covid-19 is too serious a business to be left to the doctors – accordingly, let’s start praying that the doctors were wrong!

Decision-making in these circumstances was bound to create moral paradoxes; economic activity is a necessity, but will simultaneously inevitably result in a spike in tragedies. The fundamental question was how many deaths, was one too many, in order to continue with a lockdown – essentially put a price on life. For me, perhaps one was too many, but then I am also glad that somebody else is in the driving seat!

For those not familiar with moral paradoxes, let’s refer to the most popular one: the trolley and the fatty. Imagine you are on a bridge above some railway tracks with a fat guy, and you see a train hurtling towards five unsuspecting idiots crossing the tracks. If you throw fatty on the track it would stop the train, saving the five idiots but obviously killing fatty – if you do nothing, fatty lives and the idiots die.

So question is: would you push fatty off the bridge?

There will always be those who believe that idiots must die, and there will always be those who believe too many fatties spoil the broth; any which way you look at it, one would rather be in bed sleeping, or hoping fatty jumps on his own. But what if fatty is a friend, would you let him jump?!

Closer to Covid-19, a ventilator is a costly affair, and the fatality rate after a patient is put on ventilation, as I understand from second hand news, is not very encouraging either. On the other hand, the same funds could potentially buy protective gear for a lot many health professionals, thereby saving many lives. So, should fatty die?

Which brings to fore the question, should there be any investment in the ventilators?

Every similar cost benefit analysis has a setback: it requires putting a value on life. So how do you value life; what is the price of a human life?

Most of us would immediately snort and retort, priceless! So, should the lockdown have continued till such time even one person is at risk?

But at the State level, we already have been putting a price on life – every time there was a railway accident or a plane went down. In the case of Railways, a compensation of Rs 1.5 million each for families of Tezgam train fire victims was announced quite recently, less than a year ago. Apparently, on the other hand, if you die in a plane crash the State believes that your life is worth more, which by the way is an anomaly. Whether fatty dies from being pushed on the track, or in a plane crash, his life should logically have the same value.

Frankly, one would really like to understand how the State arrives at these compensation numbers; are they completely arbitrary or are they supported by detailed economic models. Because if these values aren’t plucked out of thin air, then Sweden had a point; in our case, based on how much the State values life, compensations for 1000 deaths may be less than Rs 5 billion. It is way cheaper to pay compensations compared with the cost of preventing fatalities, apparently.

But, in fact, even that may be a higher number, if we look at it from another angle – the amount not spent on providing clean water and nutrition in, say, Thar. Do look at the nutritional status of children less than 5 years of age in Pakistan and then figure out the average cost not spent, resulting in deaths which could easily be avoided. If you want to break it down further, imagine the cost of a life which was lost for the want of a gutter cover.

Discussed thus, directly without any abstraction, more likely than not, almost everyone reading this article is cringing.

To lighten the debate a bit, there are times when even a horse is more expensive; “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” William Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. But much as we may want to ignore the truth, it is simply out there, and decisions have to be made on these bases regularly.

“In many respects lives and dollars are incommensurable, but unfortunately the planners must compare them.”- unknown.

That is the sad truth of life; while we would want life to be priceless, perhaps it is really not – in any case, it certainly finds itself wearing a price tag. With limited resources, the State can only do so much; beyond that, it is every citizen’s duty to do what is necessary to preserve the value of life.

So everyone be careful and stay safe.

SYED BAKHTIYAR KAZMI, "The value of life," Business Recorder. 2020-05-16.
Keywords: Economics , Economic activity , Costly affair , Railway accident , Economic models , Nutritional status , William Shakespeare , Covid-19

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