People born in inner-city Sydney have a life expectancy five years greater than people born in central Queensland, where I live. No doubt a big part of this is the inferior health services we have, especially in rural areas.
As a Nationals senator, I think we should spend more on health services in the bush, but I do not think that we should spend an infinite amount. I live in the real world, and I realise that the health services available in Sydney (a town of 5 million people) will always be better than in a country town.
We are not living in the real world onCOVID-19. Despite the massive costs being imposed by lockdowns, we still do not have a simple official estimate of how much they cost for each life saved. The modelling released by the government this week does not do that.
You can make a rough estimate from the separate modelling released by the Burnet Institute. It claims that the Sydney lockdown has avoided 4000 cases. The Sydney lockdown is costing $150 million a day, according to AMP, and had been in place for 35 days at the time of the Burnet modelling.
The total cost then comes to $5.3 billion, or a cost of $1.3 million for every avoided case.
The fatality rate during this outbreak has settled at about 0.4 per cent. That means that the 4000 avoided cases have prevented about 16 additional deaths. The estimated cost of each life saved is $330 million.
On any measure, this is an unjustifiable expense. And keep in mind this is only the economic cost. Lifeline experienced a record number of calls on Monday.
On the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s website there is a “guidance note” on the value of a statistical life. It notes: “Willingness to pay is the appropriate way to estimate the value of reductions in the risk of physical harm – known as the value of statistical life.” The government estimates the value of a statistical life at $5 million.
The cost of lockdowns implied by the Burnet Institute’s modelling is 66 times this amount. It is not even close.
Economists get criticised for knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. But we can’t simply ignore the costs of lockdowns, especially given their impact on poorer people who probably don’t even own a laptop, let alone work on one from home.
If we applied our COVID-19 approach to vehicle regulation, we would make everyone buy a Volvo. That would be patently unfair to poor people who need to balance their spending on more than just safety, a point made by economist Cass Sunstein.
Even rich people often don’t buy Volvos because they’re not much fun.
We are going to have to face the reality that life involves choices, and there are no choices that involve no risk. Even when we reach an 80 per cent vaccination rate, the Doherty Institute’s modelling shows that within six months there could be 280,000 coronavirus cases, including 40,000 among vaccinated people.
We have had just 34,000 cases since the start of the pandemic.
Boosting our vaccination rate further will prevent more cases and save more lives, and we should strive for that. What we need right now though, even more than a vaccine, is a hard reality pill.
The hard reality is that we have become obsessed with the daily COVID-19 case numbers. But there are no press conferences announcing how many small businesses went under the night before, how many marriages broke up, or how many people lost their job.
We can’t lock down forever, and part of the current lockdowns just kicks the can down the road. There is a lot of panic about the delta variant and its increased infectiousness, but little focus on the reality that delta is killing fewer people than the outbreaks we had last year.
This is almost certainly not because delta is any less fatal, but because many of our most vulnerable people are already vaccinated.