COVID policies threw 127 people out of work for each 1 COVID death averted

The U.S. number of employed persons decreased by 16.0% from pre-COVID to the trough of COVID and is still down 7.1% as of October 2020 (reference 1).  This was not caused by COVID; it was caused by our societal response to COVID.  It was caused by ordering everyone to stay at home, closing non-essential businesses, closing restaurants and bars, banning or discouraging travel, banning live music and live professional sporting events, etc.  This massive unemployment was predicted in the news media, so everyone knew it was coming, including the politicians, but we decided to do it anyway.

The fact this was caused by the lockdowns and not by COVID itself or even by our spontaneous fear of COVID and voluntary changes in our behavior is shown by a comparison to Sweden.  Sweden did not employ the lockdown strategy and their number of employed persons only went down 1.4% after COVID, and as of October 2020 was 1.4% higher than it was pre-COVID (reference 1).  Sweden chose a different path and as a consequence suffered almost no unemployment.

Again, if we had chosen to simply ignore COVID, or chosen the Sweden strategy of no mandatory restrictions at all, just inform people of their risks and what they can do to mitigate those risks and let them make their own decisions, we presumably would have had more people die of COVID (we estimate 200,000 more people die), but we would have had no or almost no increase in unemployment. We decided it was worth it to throw a large number of people out of work in order to extend the lives of others by preventing their infection and death from COVID.

What is the ratio of the numbers?  Employed persons in the U.S. decreased from 158.76 million in February 2020 to 133.40 million in April 2020 at the trough of the COVID recession, which is loss of work for 25.36 million persons and 16.0% of the U.S. workforce. Divided by 200,000 averted COVID deaths that is 127 persons thrown out of work for each COVID death averted by our strategy, and divided by the 354,380 COVID deaths in the U.S. in 2020 it is 72 people thrown out of work per 1 person who died of COVID in 2020.

Here we are really comparing apples to oranges, unlike with the suicides where we were comparing deaths to deaths and person-years of life of the persons we decided to kill (by driving them to suicide) to the person-years of life of those we decided to save (by preventing their COVID death).  If unemployment were the only harm of our COVID response you might think it is worth it to throw 127 people out of work to prevent 1 COVID death. Personally, I disagree, but it would not be clearly wrong to think it is worth it.  The important thing is we have to be adults about this and recognize we made a choice to harm some people by throwing them out of work in order to save others by reducing COVID infections and preventing COVID deaths.

References

  1. Statistics from TradingEconomics.com, which cited government statistics.