How Much is a Human Life Worth?
Skerries Community College
Evolving crises, in which every possible outcome is bad, confront us with thorny ethical dilemmas. Perhaps the most important of these currently on our minds is: how much economic damage should we tolerate to save lives from COVID-19? In other words, how much is a human life worth?
One common response to this question is that every human life is infinitely valuable and should be protected at all costs. But this claim falls apart under scrutiny. At the very least, the resources lost in saving some lives could have been redirected toward saving other lives. It also ignores how saving a life can make other people’s lives worse. Few people would be willing to say, for instance, that it would be worth it to plunge the entire world into misery to save just one child’s life.
Interestingly, many governments actually have a figure for the ‘value of a statistical life’. This is calculated from the amount of monetary compensation that the average person requires to subject themselves to personal risk. If someone is willing to put themselves at a 1 in 1000 annual risk of death in their job for an increase in their salary of €4000, then they implicitly value their life at €4000 × 1000 = €4,000,000. The Irish government does not explicitly keep such a figure, but the value of a statistical life for an American is around $10 million.1 Some estimates say that social distancing will save about 1 million American lives,2 which would imply that the US should be willing to sustain $10 trillion, or half of their GDP, in economic damages to enforce social distancing. But is this the right way to think about things?
Governments also use a concept called a quality-adjusted life-year (QALY), or a year of life multiplied by the quality of that year. It indicates that everyone’s life getting 10% worse for the next year is as bad as 10% of people losing one year of life. QALYs account for the intuition that, all else being equal, it is better to save the lives of young rather than elderly people, since they have more years left to live. In a worst-case scenario, COVID-19 may cause a loss of 500,000,000 years of life,3 or 1,000,000,000 QALYs when we include other permanent health effects. If this is true, then the QALY approach tells us that the world population should be willing to accept lives that are 13% worse – through unemployment, mental health problems, etc. – for the next year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But if we can no longer prevent the virus spreading, this is a more complicated calculation, involving assumptions about how quickly medical advances will be made and how much worse hospitals will function if they are overcrowded.
It’s important to mention here that the economic consequences of lockdown go beyond just making people’s lives less happy. The UN estimates that 20,000,000 people will become food-insecure in the next 6 months, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, as a direct economic consequence of COVID-19.4 We have to remember that by putting (some of) the economy before (some) human lives, we’re maintaining the critical infrastructure and supply chain that it supports.
There is also the question of how severe a lockdown should be. A more severe lockdownin Ireland may have temporarily halted the spread of the virus and saved lives, but, as we have allwitnessed in the past few months, exercise is crucial to mental health. So, restrictions on people’s ability to get outside for exercise, or to walk to see their family from a distance, are probably, on the whole, not worth it.
In conclusion, I believe that we shouldn’t shy away from quantifying the value of a human life. Choosing between lives and the economy is a false dichotomy; rather, we face a difficult trade-off between the quality of some people’s lives and the continuation of others. There must be some optimum between the two, and I believe that tools from maths and economics can help us navigate to that optimum. While the lives of the people we love may seem worth sacrificing everything for, this only emphasises how important it is that we weigh up the costs and benefits of the various paths forward – both to protect the country, and to keep the country worth protecting.
1) (Value of life, n.d.)
2) (O' Grady, 2020)
3) This is a rough estimate found from multiplying the 12 years of life that COVID-19 robs its victims of (Kirkey, 2020), by an infection fatality rate of 0.75% (Meyerowitz-Katz & Merone, 2020), by the 70% of the world population which may be required to reach ‘herd immunity’.
4) (UN, 2020).
Kirkey, S. (2020, April 24). COVID-19 robs victims of at least one decade of life on average, analysis shows. Retrieved from National Post: https://nationalpost.com/news/covid-19-victims-losingone-decade-of-life-on-average-analysis-shows
Meyerowitz-Katz, G., & Merone, L. (2020, May 6). A systematic review and meta-analysis of published
research data on COVID-19 infection-fatality rates. Retrieved from medrxiv:
O' Grady, C. (2020, 4 22). The value of lives saved by social distancing outweighs the costs. Retrieved from
UN. (2020, May 5). Food insecurity in West Africa could leave 43 million at risk as coronavirus hits. Retrieved from UN News: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/05/1063232
Value of life. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_of_life#United_States