This is something that we’d think is not true but actually turns out to be so – true that is. The coronavirus has saved more lives in China than it has caused deaths. Different lives, to be sure, and there’s a certain transposition across time as well. But, given the criteria being used here it’s right:
Separate analyses indeed found that ground-based concentrations of key pollutants — namely PM2.5 — fell substantially across much of the country. These reductions were not uniform. In northern cities such as Beijing, where much of wintertime pollution comes from winter heating, reductions were absent. But in more southern cities such as Shanghai and Wuhan where wintertime pollution is mainly from cars and smaller industry, pollution declines appeared to be dramatic.
Given the huge amount of evidence that breathing dirty air contributes heavily to premature mortality, a natural — if admittedly strange — question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself. Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear “yes”.
So, coronavirus kills people. Coronavirus reduces economic activity. Less activity means less pollution and therefore fewer deaths from less pollution. The number of deaths averted by the less pollution being higher than the number of deaths caused by the disease.
This is all true. However, it doesn’t go far enough.
Less economic activity also means more deaths. For economic activity is how we feed ourselves. Not just food though – farming hasn’t been sufficiently affected to cause starvation. But feeding all of our lives. Economic surplus that is then used to provide health care say. Or invest in making life better in the future. Lack of economic activity certainly kills as Mao proved with the Great Leap Forward.
A 5% of whatever drop in GDP will indeed kill people. Again, with a certain transposition over time.
We can also assume that the loss of life from the absence of activity will be greater than the lives saved by less pollution. For societies with greater economic activity have more people living longer lives than those with less economic activity. Thus the effect of the activity in prolonging life must be greater than the deaths caused by the pollution from the economic activity.
Adding this third iteration of effects we get back to what we originally thought was true – the coronavirus kills people,