Email Updates

Enter your email address to receive updates and previews.

How We Reason About Covid Tradeoffs 

Ben Peterson

Our pandemic decisions should be about defending the dignity of suffering people, not choosing between lives and money.

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented ugly tradeoffs between life and livelihood, and even between life and life. We don’t know the number of deaths that will result from unemployment, poverty, and social isolation over the next several years, but we know they are occurring, along with untold misery for millions more.

With fall looming, two difficult tradeoffs must be addressed: whether and how to open schools, and whether and how to play sports. Returning to normal would almost certainly contribute to the spread of the virus, increasing the risk of death for the most vulnerable. But halting these activities would incur serious economic, public health, and psychological costs. State governors, who have become major decision-makers in the pandemic, are each striking their own balance: California’s Gavin Newsom has ordered most schools in the state to close for the fall, while Texas’s Greg Abbott has left decisions in the hands of school boards.

How many deaths from the virus should we accept, and at what cost? We have an intuitive sense that the hundreds of daily deaths that states like New York were seeing at the peak of the outbreak are too many. But if we’re honest, we know that the acceptable number of deaths cannot reasonably be zero, although we have an understandable aversion to specifying just what the number is. Unsurprisingly, it seems that no public leader will offer one, although universities have had to think this question through in concrete terms. The University of Texas listed a hypothetical death of a student — apparently not a faculty or staff member — as a trigger for converting all operations online.

Yet as vexing as these ethical questions are, and as staggering in magnitude, they are different only in degree, not in kind, from other forms of risk that we deal with and accept under normal circumstances. How we answer these questions says something about what kind of society we are. Tradeoffs are more, not less, difficult because of our commitment, however inconsistent and imperfect, to the sanctity of life. Perhaps a fuller appreciation of that commitment can help us to navigate with poise and steadfastness the challenges we now face....

Not yet available online.
To read articles in print before they’re posted online, subscribe today.
4 issues ~ $24

Ben Peterson is a doctoral candidate in political science at Texas A&M.