In the film The Big Short (which is about the 2008 financial crisis), one of the characters says “Here’s a number for you: for every 1 percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. Did you know that?”
Well, I certainly didn’t know that. And nor do I know whether it is true. A quick search, however, did turn up a 2002 article on the Yale University websitewhich reports that “In the largest study of its kind on mortality patterns in Europe and the United States, a Yale researcher has found a direct correlation between unemployment and mortality.”
The article continues:
The study showed that high unemployment rates increase mortality and low unemployment decreases mortality and increases the sense of well being in a community. Findings from the three-year study, commissioned by the European Union, will be presented to select members of the European Parliament and senior officials at a European Commission press conference on May 23 in Brussels.
“Economic growth is the single most important factor relating to length of life,” said principal investigator M. Harvey Brenner, visiting professor in the Global Health Division of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine. Brenner is also professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University and senior professor of epidemiology at Berlin University of Technology.
“Employment is the essential element of social status and it establishes a person as a contributing member of society and also has very important implications for self-esteem,” said Brenner. “When that is taken away, people become susceptible to depression, cardiovascular disease, AIDS and many other illnesses that increase mortality.”
Prior studies on the impact of income on survival have focused on very poor countries with high poverty and infant mortality rates. This study shows that the same principles apply to highly industrialized and wealthy societies in which occupational differences based on skill level, wages and working conditions vary considerably. Brenner said this is compounded by ethnicity, and it is this distinction which still makes for the central differences in illness, mortality rates and life expectancy in industrialized countries.“
The reference to poor countries with high poverty brings us to the matter of what is going on in India. Last week, the BBC had a story entitled “India’s poorest ‘fear hunger may kill us before coronavirus‘” about how many people in India were terrified of the effect of the country’s lockdown.
Ramesh Kumar, who comes from Banda district in Uttar Pradesh state, said that he knew “there won’t be anybody to hire us, but we still took our chances”.
“I earn 600 rupees ($8; £6.50) every day and I have five people to feed. We will run out of food in a few days. I know the risk of coronavirus, but I can’t see my children hungry,” he said . . . .
Mohammed Sabir, who runs a tiny stall selling yogurt-based drinks in Delhi, says he had hired two people recently, anticipating more business during the summers.
“Now I can’t pay them. I don’t have any money. My family earns some money from farming in my village. But their crops were damaged this year due to hailstorms, so they were looking at me for support.
“I feel so helpless. I fear that hunger may kill many like us before coronavirus,” he said..“
When it comes to Coronavirus, there is much that we don’t know. For example, different countries are reporting very different proportions of people who get the disease that die. In Italy it is currently 11%, in the US it is 1.7%, in the UK it is 6.3%, in South Korea it is 1.6%, in Germany it is 0.8%. Why these differences?
Is it because of where the countries are on the curve (which would mean that they will all be about the same at the end of the day)? Is it because of the different strategies adopted in dealing with the outbreak? Is it because of cultural differences between countries, or because in some countries older people get the disease and in some countries younger people do? Or is it because of the different ways the deaths are counted? Undoubtedly these are all contributory factors – but at the moment, we just don’t know how much each contributes.
The the biggest thing we don’t know – the most important, in practical terms – is what the effects (and side effects) are of the different policies being adopted in response to the disease. What will the long term effects of lockdowns be? How many people will die as a result of them? In the long run, is it possible that imposing a lockdown could have such a serious impact on the economy that more people will die than will have died otherwise?
Swedish industrialist Jacob Wallenberg has warned that lockdowns can lead to 20%-30% unemployment rates. If that is true – and of course we don’t know if it is – then if each 1% rise in unemployment leads to 40,000 deaths in America, we would be looking at an extra 700,000 deaths in America. If we assumed a similar effect in the UK, that would mean an extra 150,000 deaths. Frankly I am sceptical, but what do I know? However, even if it only led to an extra 20,000 deaths in the UK – that would be fairly serious.
Economics and sanctions
The problem is that a lot of people are framing the debate about Coronavirus, the economy, and lockdowns as being about weighing up the relative importance of preserving human life against preserving the economy. The reality is that the state of the economy makes a huge difference to whether people live or die. And this is something people don’t seem to be able to accept.
This is why imposing economic sanctions on a country is such an terrible thing to do, and yet hardly anyone bats an eyelid about it. In 1996, Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State, was asked about UN sanctions against Iraq on television. “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” said the interviewer. Albright infamously replied, “We think the price is worth it.”
Obviously, we don’t know exactly how many children in Iraq might have died as a result of the sanctions, but the point is that hurting the economies of countries has enormous human costs.
More recently, a report, published by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) a Washington DC-based think tank, estimated that as many as 40,000 people may have died in Venezuela as a result of US sanctions that made it harder for ordinary citizens to access food, medicine and medical equipment, a new report has claimed.
And, while we are on the topic of sanctions, one of the countries which has been hardest hit by the Covid-19 outbreak is Iran. Even before the outbreak, the Iranian people were suffering real hardship because of sanctions. As one commentator wrote,
Most critics of U.S. sanctions miss this fundamental point: U.S. sanctions are doing much more than preventing Iran from importing the medicine and medical goods that it may need to tackle the virus. U.S. sanctions are proving a prohibitive bar to Iran providing the basic goods and services necessary for their people to survive this catastrophic epidemic.
Deaths visible and invisible
We don’t know how many people will die as a result of the Coronavirus. But the numbers dying are being reported regularly and I, like plenty of other people am glued to the worldometers web site and watching those figures. (At the moment, it stands at 34,034 worldwide, 1,224 in the UK, and 41 in Scotland – and who knows where those figures will end up.)
But what I do know is that those numbers will be watched by the world, and people who die of Covid-19 will get plenty of coverage in the press.
In the meantime, those who die because of sanctions on Venezuela and Iran will get hardly any press coverage. In the same way, the estimated 290,000 to 650,000 who die annually as a result of influenza are pretty much unnoticed. And it is quite possible that those who die because of the (perhaps long term) economic effects of the lockdown may get very little press coverage.
After all, the estimated 230,000 people who have died over the past five years in Yemen as a result of the Saudi led war on that country remain – mostly dying of hunger, disease, and lack of health clinics rather than bombs and bullets – have been almost completely invisible in the western media.
(And yes, the picture at the top shows not a victim of the Coronavirus, but a child in Yemen who is a victim of the largest cholera epidemic on record.)