What should young people do in the face of the threat of Covid-19? Should they get vaccinated? Should they stay away from school? Should they avoid social gatherings? Should they wear masks?
For the mainstream media, the answers to these questions are obvious: risk avoidance is always worthwhile. Economists aren’t so sure. What’s the difference? Economists do something beat reporters and even most health professionals rarely do: their training impels them to compare costs with benefits.
The probability that an 18-year-old will die from a Covid infection, for example, is 0.004 percent. By contrast, the probability that an 85-year-old will die from a Covid infection is 8 percent. According to economists Charles Hooper and David Henderson, writing in the Wall Street Journal, these differences in probabilities have huge implications for a rational way to respond to the risks of the virus.
To begin with, the 18-year-old has a life expectancy of 61 years, while the 85-year-old is expected to live only 6.4 more years. From that difference, you might expect that the younger person has a lot more at stake. If either could avoid immediate death, the younger of the two has many more years of life ahead to enjoy. That advantage is offset, however, by the much greater difference in the probability of dying, once infected.
Hooper and Henderson do the math and calculate the value of avoiding infection by a whole series of protective actions – vaccination, self-isolation, mask-wearing, etc. The results: the 18-year-old gains an additional life expectancy of 7.5 hours. The 85-year-old gains 65 days. In other words, protective measures are worth 210 times as much as the older of the two in terms of time.
How much would you pay to add seven and half hours to the end of your life? Would you pay more than $100,000? That’s not just a hypothetical. The economists point to one study estimating that when a young person stays out of school for two-thirds of a year, the loss of lifetime earnings is about $102,000. To make Covid avoidance measures worthwhile, the student would have to value his time at $13,600 an hour!
And staying out of school is just one of many costs young people are bearing today because of lockdown measures forced upon them. There is mental illness, suicide, and much more.
The economists note that Covid is a highly discriminatory virus and they conclude, “Had policymakers understood the enemy, they would have adopted different protocols for young and old. Politicians would have practiced focused protection, narrowing their efforts to the most vulnerable 11 percent of the population and freeing the remaining 89 percent of Americans from wasteful burdens.
John Goodman is president of the Goodman Institute, the author of New Way to Care, and the co-publisher of Health Care News.