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Unseen costs of Covid-19 not being counted

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

University of Auckland Economist Dr Ananish Chaudhuri says the immediate emotional power of people dying with the disease could lead New Zealand into an extension of the Covid-19 lockdown with dire consequences, including more deaths.

Chaudhuri, who is currently Visiting Professor of Public Policy, at Harvard Kennedy School, says people over-estimate the costs of immediate and visible dangers, which clouds judgement and calculations of the unseen costs arising from their reaction.

"Extension of the lockdown would aim to save a more certain number of lives now, for an unknown number of lives we will lose over time due to health and economic impacts.

"Unemployment is not just a number; there are human health and fatality costs. When unemployment goes up the life expectancy of those people goes down. Furthermore, there are devastating consequences for communities from high unemployment - depression, poverty, violence, falling education.

"People have tried to claim that extending the current lockdown is a choice between saving lives and losing money, but it’s not. It’s a choice between losing lives now but losing lives later - and possibly a greater number and a greater variety of otherwise healthy people later."

Chaudhuri points to research showing that the immediate aftermath of the 911 attacks was an estimated 1500 additional deaths on the road, from people driving rather than flying. It arose because in an environment surrounded by concerns over terrorism, people judged they were more likely to die of terrorism than a traffic accident, or even of the more likely event of respiratory illness or heart attack.

"The problem is that we pay more attention to, and value higher, things happening right in front of us - but we don’t pay attention to, or value, even larger things that happen less visibly or more slowly."

Chaudhuri says an error is being made by those who differentiate between objectives of suppression, eradication, or mitigation.

"It’s a continuum between doing nothing and doing everything - and there’s different costs along that continuum. The challenge is to correctly perceive and calculate those costs." Chaudhuri says.

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