September 1, 2021
From Red Flag (Australia)

Glenn Greenwald is justly known for his journalism exposing the crimes of empire and the establishment, including the liberal establishment. This made all the more surprising and disappointing his recent article titled, “The bizarre refusal to apply cost-benefit analysis to COVID debates”. Greenwald claims that “rational cost-benefit analysis” regarding COVID “has been bizarrely declared off-limits”. He writes that there is a “pervasive and deeply misguided refusal to assign any costs to the harms caused by anti-COVID policies themselves”.

What is rational or otherwise in particular analyses can be a matter of dispute, but it is obviously false to say that there is a paucity of public discussion of the costs of anti-COVID policies. Just to take the United States, on which Greenwald’s article focuses, from the very first lockdowns, there have been a huge number of media and business complaints about the measures destroying “the economy”. Greenwald does not even mention this campaign, let alone its success in forcing the premature easing of public health restrictions, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Instead, he cites only psychological-social harms to children from school closures and other anti-COVID health measures. But it is equally false that the discussion of such harms has been “declared off-limits”. Is Greenwald not aware of the US state governors and legislators who are not only forcing schools to reopen regardless of circumstances but also trying to ban masks because of their supposed harm to children?

Greenwald is here following the economic elites and their political agents. They shifted emphasis from harms to “the economy” to harms to children when it became evident that the former campaign failed to persuade enough working people that they are selfish if they put concern for their own and their children’s health and lives ahead of the profits of their employers.

A meaningful comparison of the costs and benefits of policy choices is possible only if there is a reasonable degree of knowledge about what their sizes will be. Regarding COVID, there can only be speculation on that. Greenwald stresses that deaths of under-18s in the US since the start of the pandemic total only 361. Such a low number, he says makes unjustifiable health measures such as school closures. However, that statistic doesn’t help much, because those deaths were neither a cost nor a benefit of anti-COVID measures.

They are one indicator of the danger that COVID represents for the young. But a calculation of the benefits of anti-COVID measures would have to compare the current death toll with what it would have been if no public health measures, such as school closures, had been adopted. Nobody knows what that would have been, except that it could have been large (and may still be). Children in lockdowns are generally more isolated than adults, many of whom are still working and are involved in a household’s shopping and other external activities. It could be argued that at least some of the reason for fewer COVID cases and deaths among children is due to the effectiveness of anti-COVID policies.

Furthermore, Greenwald limits his argument to the number of child deaths. Yet long COVID is serious problem, even though children may not be as severely affected as adults.

“Evidence from the first study of long covid in children [in Italy] suggests that more than half of children aged between 6 and 16 years old who contract the virus have at least one symptom lasting more than 120 days, with 42.6 percent impaired by these symptoms during daily activities”, notes a March article (i.e. before the rapid spread of the Delta variant) in New Scientist.

“The UK Office for National Statistics’s latest report estimates that 12.9 percent of UK children aged 2 to 11, and 14.5 percent of children aged 12 to 16, still have symptoms five weeks after their first infection. Almost 500,000 UK children have tested positive for covid-19 since March 2020.”

On those figures, in less than half a year, something like 60-70,000 UK children have contracted some degree of long COVID. And no-one yet knows how long long COVID will last.

The situation is becoming more serious with Delta. Already, Florida and Texas, and possibly other US states, have no unoccupied paediatric hospital beds—so it is likely that there will be indirect child deaths caused by COVID.

Then there are family members, who are also ignored by Greenwald. Children can obviously be a vector for transmission of the virus to the adults in their homes. The 27 August New York Times reported on a recent study of an outbreak at a California primary school. There, a teacher not wearing a mask spread the virus to twelve of her 24 pupils. Another six children in a different classroom were also infected, as were eight family members of the students.

Finally, the more children there are infected, even if not seriously ill, the greater is the likelihood of the virus mutating.

Even if we had reliable figures on the children harmed by anti-COVID measures and those who would die or suffer prolonged illness in the absence of those measures, how would we compare the two? A corporation considering a change in production methods, for example, can normally calculate the likely costs and benefits in dollar terms. But how many children with psychological injury A equal y dead children? How many cases of B caused by school closure are equivalent to z cases of child long COVID?

Insurance actuaries would answer by converting everything into money: estimating how much injury A will cost in the individual’s lost productiveness and medical expenses, and the value of the production lost by the child who dies or suffers long COVID rather than spending a lifetime at work. That is, cost-benefit analysis in this case depends on regarding human beings as capitalism regards them: nothing but sources of income or expense and disregarding any other aspect of human life.

This relates to a central problem of Greenwald’s proposed COVID cost-benefit analysis. In the corporation’s calculations, costs and benefits accrue to the same “person”—the corporation; this makes the decision easy if one of the two magnitudes is significantly greater than the other. But in an analysis regarding all or a large part of a society, the cost-bearers and the beneficiaries are likely to be quite different groups. They might even be different classes.

Greenwald ignores that reality, writing as though it were a question of total costs and benefits for US society as an undifferentiated whole. This is particularly obvious when he employs a rather silly analogy with private automobile usage. Americans, he says, are okay with car crashes being the number one cause of death for people under the age of 55, because a “rational cost-benefit analysis” tells them that banning or severely restricting the use of private cars would make things even worse (ignoring that US society restricts private automobile usage in numerous ways, such as traffic laws).

Most people in the US have a car for the simple reason that that is the only practicable way for them to go about their daily lives. Analysis, whether rational or otherwise, has nothing to do with it: they have no real choice.

The main beneficiaries of private automobiles are not the individual owners; indeed, taking account of all the costs (depreciation, insurance, registration fees, petrol, taxes for road construction and maintenance, the danger of death or serious injury), it seems likely that their benefits are considerably outweighed. The chief beneficiaries of public dependence on private automobiles are the big automobile and oil corporations, the manufacturers of tyres and other automobile equipment, the construction companies paid to build the ever-expanding networks of highways, the banks that finance car purchases—in short, the very wealthy people whose lobbying and money determine what is acceptable and unacceptable in public policy.

Similarly, regarding COVID, we should think about who benefits and who pays. Greenwald’s one concession to class in the article is that it is easier for rich people than for poor people to avoid the inconveniences of COVID restrictions. He doesn’t seem to notice that it is also easier for them to avoid death or severe illness.

Lockdowns and similar measures certainly affect working people and the poor. That’s why we should insist that such measures be implemented in a way that minimises harm—for example, by governments paying an adequate subsidy to laid-off staff. But it is also the case that a large part of the cost of lockdowns and similar anti-COVID measures falls on capitalists. Not all of them, and not equally, but when businesses can’t exploit their workers, they can’t make profits.

So while the world’s wealthiest people have increased their wealth during the pandemic, some large and very large corporations, like airlines, have suffered major losses. Also among the losers are many medium-sized and small businesses—layers often under economic stress even before the pandemic struck. This explains why the most ferocious COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers tend to be concentrated among the right-wingers and racists attracted to demagogues and conspiracy theories about the causes of their financial difficulties.

For leftists, or for honest journalists with no particular political viewpoint, it is a serious mistake to be taken in by the capitalists’ feigned concern for the welfare of children.