The recent knee-jerk lockdown has sparked more discussion about the ‘value’ of a human life. Yes, it may sound callous to put a price on life; yet we do it all the time.
Consider road speed limits, for example. According to the RAC, Western Australia has the worst per capita road fatality rate of any state. On average, one person is killed on WA roads every two days.
The World Health Organisation has found that speed predicts motor car accidents. A speed increase of one kilometre per hour results in a 3% higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5% increase for collisions that result in fatalities. So if the WA government lowered the state’s speed limit to 10 kilometres an hour, it would reduce the highway death toll to around zero.
Absurd, you might think. Crawling around highways at 10 kilometres per hour would not only be frustrating and tedious, it would also be very costly—to commerce, tourism, and work productivity.
As a society, we Western Australians have chosen a compromise. We are willing to sacrifice 180 lives each year to advance other goals, such as efficient travel and cheaper commerce. The choice may be implicit (we have not had a referendum on highway speed limits), but make no mistake — the price of speedy travel is paid in blood on our highways.
How we deal with potentially deadly disease presents a similar moral issue. We can take actions designed to reduce illness almost to zero; but lockdowns, border closures, and social distancing rules come with costs.
The damages are not just economic; they also affect human flourishing. Having a job, attending a wedding or funeral, witnessing the birth of your child — these are not optional extras to life. They are what make life worth living.
Despite having the worst highway death toll in the country, Western Australia’s premier has not recommended lowering the speed limit. Yet one case of Covid-19 is enough for him to lock down millions of people, shut schools, and close down businesses. In contrast to highway speed limits, there seems to be no opportunity for trade-offs in dealing with Covid-19.
So far, there is no sign of a Eureka Stockade rebellion. (As Clive James once reminded us, we are not only the descendants of convicts but also of prison officers.) Public attitudes may change once people gain a better understanding of what an immunisation program can — and cannot — achieve.
We often see references to ‘eradicating’ Covid-19, Unfortunately, ridding the world of this scourge is not a realistic goal. The only human infectious disease ever eradicated by a vaccination program is smallpox; it took 200 years. Eliminating Covid-19 from Australia is an achievable objective, but elimination also takes a long time. Australia was officially declared free of polio in 2000 — 40 years after the vaccination program began.
As everyone knows by now, ridding Australia of Covid-19 depends on the country achieving ‘herd immunity’ (a term that reflects its origins in veterinary medicine). Herd immunity is not a treatment; it is a statistical concept. Once a certain proportion of the population (the herd) is immune to a disease — thanks to a vaccine or as a result of recovering from the virus itself — infection rates decline because the disease is unable to find susceptible hosts.
The existence of an effective vaccine is only the first step on the road to herd immunity. We must also ensure that a sufficient number of people are vaccinated and receive ‘booster’ shots when necessary. Neither of these requirements is swiftly met. Vaccines effective against whooping cough have been available since the 1930s, yet thousands of Australians contract the disease every year. Many suffer severe consequences.
Even if we successfully eliminate Covid-19 through herd immunity, we cannot assume that no Australian will ever again catch the disease. According to the WHO, Australia ‘eliminated’ measles in 2014, yet cases have been reported in Australia every year since.
Because measles still exists in other countries, visitors and unvaccinated Australian travellers contract the illness while abroad. When they enter Australia, they spread the disease to those who refuse vaccines and those unable to be immunised because of age or poor immune functioning. A neighbourhood with a low vaccination rate is like a cache of dynamite just waiting for an infected traveller to detonate an explosion.
The WA government does not quarantine Australians returning home from countries with measles outbreaks. This insouciance about a highly contagious and dangerous disease is difficult to reconcile with the draconian approach taken to Covid-19.
Unfortunately, some level of Covid-19 will be with us for years. Let us hope that our leaders begin to consider trade-offs. If they stick to their current course, quarantines, lockdowns and border closures may never end.
Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, former vice-chancellor of Macquarie, Murdoch and Brunel Universities, and former Executive Dean of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Western Australia.
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