Let’s be as cautious about the lives of older, sicker Kiwis as we are about the lives of our soldiers, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Nicholas Agar 

With no sport on, we are left to pursue our trans-Tasman rivalries though Covid-19 statistics. The bad news is the Australians seem to be doing just about as well as us without ever having to forgo KFC or browsing bookstores. Some critics of the Government have joined Mike Hosking in taunting – “Have we overreacted to all of this?”

We must make a trade-off between the economic pain of lockdown and saving lives. The simple lives-or-dollars formula makes this choice seem easier than it really is. When we choose to spend money on Te Papa that could be spent on dialysis machines, we, in effect, choose culture over lives. So when do we decide it’s time to restart the economy and accept some additional risk of Covid-19 infection? A historical perspective suggests we should err on the side of accepting greater economic pain.

In mid-March, when the magnitude of Covid-19 become apparent, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned that “we don’t want to be Italy”. Italy’s numbers are staggering. When I last checked, in Covid-19 cases with “an outcome” – either recovery or death, 26 percent of affected Italians had died. This high rate is partly attributable to Italy’s older population.

Consider how a narrow focus on economic efficiency might suggest we respond to these deaths. From the perspective of the ‘commanding heights’ of Italy’s economy, there’s no big problem with a few extra Covid-19 deaths, especially if these deaths come predominantly from older and sicker people. 

The phrase ‘the commanding heights of the economy’ comes to us from the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. He was certainly prepared to sacrifice a few lives to achieve what he viewed as a worthy goal. If you find the reasoning that follows callous, then you probably aren’t Lenin.

The US National Bureau of Economic Research links an ageing population with lower participation in the labour force, reduced savings rates and slower economic growth. The economic contributions of older and sicker Italians are, in general, less than those of comparatively protected younger and healthier people. The eventual reward for Italians from the pandemic could be a better economy.

Ardern needn’t worry that a Kiwi relaxation will turn us into Italy. If we follow Australia’s lead, our hospitals won’t be abruptly overwhelmed by sick and dying people. But we should understand that any relaxation of lockdown likely exposes more Kiwis to the coronavirus.

Our reluctance to sacrifice the lives of our soldiers for noble causes should teach us something about the sacrifice of older and sicker Kiwis for our economy’s sake.

A focus on history suggests Kiwis should be content with a Covid-19 policy that errs far on the side of caution.

Many attempts to understand the pandemic draw on the 1918 flu. The estimated 50 million global deaths of the Spanish flu followed, without respite, the approximately 40 million deaths of World War I.

It’s useful to think about changes in the way we approach death in war as a guide to potential deaths from Covid-19. One thing we learn is how different we are from the Kiwis of 100 years ago. One mark of progress is we today are much less tolerant of mass death than were our forebears. 

In World War I, 18,058 New Zealand soldiers died. We continue to mourn and acknowledge this loss. In the almost 20 years New Zealand soldiers have been posted to Afghanistan, there have been 10 deaths. There were moving tributes for each of these fallen Kiwi combatants. New Zealand has had the luxury of mourning them as individuals, something impossible for the generation that went through World War I.

But their sacrifices seem to have been in vain. The Taliban, with its fundamentalist ideology, has reasserted itself in Afghanistan. At least when we think about our dead of World War I we remember them on the winning side. If New Zealand and the other democracies had been prepared to sacrifice lives with the abandon of World War I generals, might the reward have been a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan?

Our reluctance to sacrifice the lives of our soldiers for noble causes should teach us something about the sacrifice of older and sicker Kiwis for our economy’s sake. Recovery from the economic harm of the pandemic will be long and hard. If we choose to prioritise the economy, older, sicker Kiwis killed by Covid-19 won’t be around to complain. But their loved ones will be there to ask why we didn’t try hard enough to not be Italy.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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