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How many deaths can we afford?

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It’s a question to which there is no answer — at least, to which I have no answer. But some people seem to think they know it. There’s an unnerving debate going on about what we should consider more important: protecting the health of every single individual, or protecting the economy from a devastating crisis.

For decades, I have written about the economic impacts of crises of all kinds, including the 9/11 attacks or the collapse of Lehman Brothers. I even experienced the fall of an entire system — that of communist East Germany — in 1989. And now there's this virus, still invisible and unknown. It is this unfamiliarity that makes it so dangerous and also that makes us so anxious. So anxious that we accept lockdowns, restrictions to our freedom of movement and social-distancing measures. Economic and public life has ground almost to a halt, giving rise to images resembling those of an apocalypse. Rush hour no longer exists.

Read more: Coronavirus sledgehammers global job markets

Huge stimulus packages

We're beginning to juggle bigger numbers than during the global financial crisis. The US has passed a $2 trillion (€1.8 trillion) relief package, and the European Central Bank has launched a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme. Such packages are being announced all over the world. So now the question many are asking is, of course: Who will pay for them? Is it going to be like after the financial crisis when all states were in debt up to their necks? With the consequence that they introduced austerity measures and slashed spending with a devastating effect on social welfare, health care systems, education and investments. Credible medical studies conducted in Britain show that many thousands of people additionally died of cancer between 2008 and 2010 because they did not receive adequate treatment partly as a result of such austerity measures.

DW's Henrik Böhme

Hard words

Now, once again, we're talking about trade-offs. How many dead people can or do we want to afford? Or, to put it differently: How much is a human life worth to........

© Deutsche Welle