COVID-19 Math: Lives v. Money

Before the Pinto went public in 1970, Ford Motors knew the compact car was a death trap; when it was rear ended, the doors would often jam and the gas tank would explode, turning the car into a locked furnace. When they learned of the car’s flaws, Ford executives ran a cost-benefit analysis, instead of recalling the cars from dealers and delaying their public debut. The analysis concluded it was cheaper to pay off burned or dead Pinto owners (or their families) than to fix the safety issues on the 11 million Pintos they expected to sell.

They also calculated that the cost of recalling the Pinto would have been $121 million.

And the cost of lawsuits for the victims (or their families) of an expected total 2100 rear end accidents would be around $50 million: $200,000 per death, $67,000 per serious burn injury, and $700 per burned-out vehicle.

But, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), between 1970 and 1974, “nearly 9,000 people burned to death in flaming wrecks. Tens of thousands more were badly burned and scarred for life. And the four-year delay meant that over 10 million new unsafe vehicles went on the road, vehicles that will be crashing, leaking fuel and incinerating people well into the 1980s.”

1871 Ford Pinto

I imagine a similar study, and conversation, was conducted by Trump administration officials when making their COVID-19 policy decision: shutdown the country or keep the economy open. If we shut it down, when do we reopen it? What is the deciding factor: money or lives? Which Is more important? What is a life worth?

Trump faced that decision earlier this year and seemed to decide that the US economy was (is) vital to the continued freedom and existence of the United States of America, and to his political campaign, as well. Protecting the economy seems to have justified everything from lying to the public about the severity of the virus to. While it appears that he did not (does not) take the virus seriously, it is more likely that the economy is a priority to him.

Donald Trump – and others –  has decided that a functioning economy is worth a certain number of lives. How many people have to die before the US government would consider another shut down? Is there a number? A million dead? Too high? Half a million? 250,000? Will he order another shutdown if we pass the 250,000 mark?

Many people, many Americas, millions of Americans, would agree readily with a the idea that deaths are inevitable if we keep the country and the economy “open” and that they are okay with those deaths/ they aren’t necessary opr agreeable or desirable, but they are the price we have to pay to one day get the economy back to where it was, as soon as possible.

But, we come back to the same thing: being okay with people losing their lives to COVID-19 means being okay with policies and behaviors that put people at risk, that put you and me at risk. It means being okay with politicians who knowingly enact health policies and bills (for this pandemic in particular) with an eye towards their impact on the stock market, not for their effect on people’s lives and health. It means being okay with people in general making decisions that can and will get people killed. And, it means being okay with the fact that they don’t care.

1972 Ford Pinto after rear-impact crash test.

In 1974, Americans had to accept the fact that Ford Motors, a trusted household brand and an American icon, valued profit above their lives. In 2020, Americans have to face the fact that their deaths don’t mean anything to the president unless they have a negative effect on the stock market. And, they, we, have to accept the coming reality, that we – or our family, friends, coworkers, etc. – may, any day, become the unfortunate casualties of greed and the relentless push to get back to our distinctly American way of life.

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