Who could enunciate such a value judgement?

So as lock-down in its various forms struggles on, we can clearly see that lives are being saved. But there are still those that think that the economic cost outweighs the benefits. The argument, put forward largely by people who are not intrinsically at risk, is that saving a few lives is not worth the extensive suffering caused by the economy being shut-down.

This all put me in mind of some correspondence I saw recently from the dim dark-ages of the late 1980s. Bear with me here….

In April 1987 the members of the National Committee for Physics were circulated a proposal entitled ‘Volunteers for Ionising Radiation’. In forwarding the proposal for comment the Chair could not resist editorialising by describing it as a ‘somewhat macabre proposal’.

The proposal originated in the UK with Professor Sir Frederick Warner who, in a nutshell, suggested putting together a group of old men who could respond to Chernobyl-like events. The old men would volunteer to “…take 5 rads a day of ionising radiation up to 20-30 days” in responding to a nuclear emergency.

The thing I really like, though, is the diplomatic response from the Australian institute of Physics. Dr JG Collins, writing in response to the proposal, raised four questions. One was just about using technology, the other three are the interesting ones:

  1. how great are the differential effects of radiation … on the lives of people under and over 65?
  2. how does society value, deferentially, the lives of people under and over 65?
  3. who could enunciate such a value judgement?

In other words, are you willing to put a value on old-people’s lives and, if you are, are you willing to stand up and say so publicly? And it’s that that takes us back round to today and the economy-versus-lives question of the covid lock-down.

If you are one of the people pontificating about the damage to the economy not being worth the lives saved are you:

  1. clear on how many lives are being saved and lost?
  2. willing to put a value on the lives lost in terms of the economy?
  3. willing to stand up publicly and tell people that the loss of lives, the loss of their loved ones, is OK because of the economic benefit?

If you aren’t willing to stand up and enunciate such a value judgement, just be quiet.

All that said, interestingly, when the Fukushima disaster occurred 2011 a group of Japanese pensioners volunteered to face the dangers of radiation in place of young people. And maybe that’s what’s needed – if you are some middle aged male talking up the economy over lives, volunteer to go work in an aged-care home or a meat-works and then you might have some credibility.

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