There is an economic principle that we should all learn in a Civics class sometime in Middle School. The catchy acronym is: T.A.N.S.T.A.A.F.L. (pronounced, “Tanstafl”). It stands for, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” The principle is a simple observation of the choices we make – there is always a trade-off, and there are always what we call “opportunity costs.”
If a 10-year-old has just enough money in his pocket for a LEGO set or a new pair of shoes, he can’t buy both. The opportunity cost of the LEGO set is the pair of new shoes, and vice versa. The trade-off of buying one thing is that you cannot buy the other. Nothing happens for free, and no choice is without consequence. Many of our choices are like this example – they are relatively simple and inconsequential. The boy buys the LEGO set today, saves his money, and buys the shoes next month.
The larger the decisions get, however, the larger the trade-off and the more significant the consequences. When parents make decisions for an entire family, everyone is affected by the trade-offs. When a nation, or now when an international organization, makes a large-scale decision, the consequences are enormous.
When large economic decisions are made, there are inevitable ripple effects and the ripples always die where the people are the poorest and most vulnerable.
When large economic decisions are made, there are inevitable ripple effects and the ripples always die where the people are the poorest and most vulnerable.Tweet
A common refrain from wealthy Americans who have stable incomes and flexible jobs is that any opposition to lockdowns are due to selfish people who do not want to be inconvenienced. After all, they themselves are suffering, relatively speaking, mild inconvenience. I would argue that this is, in fact, the selfish and narrow-minded position to take. There is a wider world out there full of people whose income relies on businesses being open. A wealthy American can shift their buying habits and be fine. Waitresses rely on the old patterns that are now disrupted for myopic and dubious reasons.
Beyond our own borders, nation-wide lockdowns in unstable economies, where people were feeding themselves hand-to-mouth before the pandemic, are literally killing people – the poorest and most vulnerable. For example, at the start of 2020 the World Bank predicted that global extreme poverty would fall below 8% for the first time in a long time. Not only is that good news in and of itself, but it also represents children who can now eat (and survive), that otherwise could not. Now, however, because of the lockdowns, that rate has been adjusted to over 9%. This works out to roughly 1.2 million children who will starve to death. Not because of the pandemic. Because of the lockdowns.
You might be inconvenienced, but almost everyone else (statistically speaking) is seriously suffering.
It is not just the poorest of the poor in developing economies. It is your neighbor’s teenager and the young man who used to have a job. While there was a growing epidemic of drug use and overdose before 2020, the lockdowns seem to have increased the number of overdose deaths. By one count on the CDC website, the death rate from overdose in 2020 has gone up 13.2%. While we do not have firm numbers on suicide rates in the US, there are individual states that have reported steep inclines in the number of suicides so far, and one study shows that more people have died in Japan from suicide than from COVID. And in Japan the lockdowns were relatively light.
Add those hard numbers to the growing pile of anecdotal evidence most of us have, and the picture is pretty clear – the cost of the lockdowns is higher than many want you to believe.
As a pastor with a healthy and concerned church, I regularly watch these stories multiply. Widows who have been bulwarks of the community for decades have been alone for months and now call their friends late at night crying. Middle schoolers who casually tell me they have F’s and D’s in all their classes. They routinely turn off their video class when their teachers talk about BLM and claim their WiFi went out. Or the teenaged girls who suffer from very real depression because they were not able to physically hug their friends for weeks. Or the teachers attending the funerals of their students who committed suicide. Or the parents who have to talk to their kids again when another one at school ends his life. And on it goes.
Public health is not a one-variable issue. It is holistic and tries to take into account everything that comprises the general well-being of the public. It is a dereliction to reduce it to one politically charged variable. When we do, like we have with COVID, there are inevitable trade-offs and consequences from our wholesale decisions. If you don’t see them yet, you will.