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On the Relevance of the Age Profile of Covid’s Fatalities

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(Don Boudreaux)


Here’s an e-mail that I sent to my colleague Bryan Caplan:


You’re correct that the steep age profile of Covid-19 fatalities matters greatly for assessing the reasonableness of policy responses to the disease. And I applaud your eloquence and care at explaining the problems with Jeremy Horpedahl’s and others’ resistance to what truly does seem to be an irresistible conclusion.

To avoid the many challenges with calculating the value of a statistical life, think of the matter in the following way: Suppose that a society, identical to ours, will – with 100 percent certainty – be stricken with one of three pathogens. But this society can choose which of the three to suffer. Each pathogen will kill the same number of persons, with this number being significant, potentially as high as 0.15 percent of the society’s total population.

Pathogen A will kill only people 80 years old and older.
Pathogen B will kill only people 30 years old and younger.
Pathogen C will kill indiscriminately across all age groups.

The Fates give the society 24 hours to choose which of these three pathogens to endure. Perhaps it’s true that a surprisingly large number of very selfish and frightened people 80 and older will argue for pathogen B, while many other elderly people, being a bit less selfish, will argue for pathogen C.

But surely the great majority of citizens – including, I suspect, elderly citizens – would argue for pathogen A. And this stance is the one that’s most ethically agreeable. To see why, suppose further that just before voting on the pathogen is conducted, each person is given a shot that, for a few minutes, puts that person behind a veil of age-ignorance, causing each person to temporarily lose all knowledge of whether he or she is old, young, or middle-aged. Surely the great bulk of these age-blind people would vote for pathogen A over pathogen B or C.

The age profile of Covid’s fatalities, of course, isn’t quite as stark as that of pathogen A. But it’s much closer to pathogen A than to pathogen B or C.

Because pathogens B and C would each be regarded as far more devastating, heartbreaking, and frightening than pathogen A, if society were nevertheless stricken with B or C rather than with A, society would reasonably expend more effort and resources protecting against the pathogen than it would spend protecting against pathogen A. This point I cannot prove, but it does seem to me to follow firmly from the ranking of the three pathogens.

But even if the amount of effort and resources spent combatting pathogen A would be as great as that spent combatting either of the other two pathogens, surely the pattern of this use of effort and resources would differ. Surely efforts would be made to focus protection on its victims (namely, people 8o and older). Surely younger people would not be treated as if they are as at much risk from the pathogen as are the elderly.

The magnitude of Covid lockdowns and other indiscriminate, often draconian policies strikes me as what people would be more likely to endorse if Covid were akin to pathogen B or C. Yet Covid is much closer to pathogen A. If the responses that we’ve endured over the past 14 months are acceptable in light of the very obvious and steep age profile of Covid’s victims, what, I ask, would acceptable responses look like if Covid were akin to pathogen B or C? It’s terrifying to contemplate.

Please keep up your great work.



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