Why the artificial conflict of life and livelihood?
by Moshahida Sultana (translated from Bangla original in Prothom Alo)
Corona test costs about Tk 5,000 sitting at home privately. And the cost of one month as government financial assistance has been estimated at Tk 2,500. In other words, the cost of corona test of a single patient has been taken as the cost of one month for two families. What kind of comparison is this?Let us come later on the acceptability of this comparison. Before that I am coming to the politics of conflict to make a living.
Knowing that there is this politics, many economists hide it to artificially present a dilemma in front of the people. For a month now, people have been in a position to choose between life and livelihood. But if adequate food and financial assistance could have been delivered on time, the issue of this crisis would not have come up. Of course not all can be closed indefinitely. But the World Health Organization also gave some conditions for relaxation of the lockdown. This included controlling the incidence of corona and achieving a minimum capacity for post-lockdown living. But while the number of victims and deaths is increasing day by day without going that route, I see that it is being presented as a dilemma to rationalize the economic activities. The economic rationale for pricing, which has given rise to both these crises, can be traced back to its roots.
Proponents of neoclassical economic theory have found that the cost of saving lives varies from country to country. The argument of locking down the lockdown using such an economic assessment has recently come to our notice. In their study, The Benefits and Costs of Social Distancing in Rich and Poor Countries, published in April, Mubarak and Barnett-Howell showed that lockdowns were more profitable in high-income countries than in low-income ones. In high-income countries the total survival cost or value of other Statistical Life (VSL) is so high that even with a lockdown, financial support, using an incentive package, the gain will outweigh the loss. But in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, the value of statistical life is so low that the financial loss of lockdown in those countries is much more than the benefits. They have shown that the benefits of lockdown in the United States are 56 percent of the total GDP, but in Bangladesh it is only 14 percent.
In this study, they used the concept called VSL to show that the value of saving all lives is not the same in all societies. Some societies value economic benefits more than saving lives, some less so. How a society evaluates the death of a stranger without considering the productivity, potential, and social value of his survival to the family while he is alive; With that the acceptability of this price is fixed. For example, if a Bangladeshi worker agrees to work in a factory that does not comply with safety standards, knowing that the risk to life is high, and an American worker does not agree, the cost of living is lower for Bangladeshi workers and higher for American workers. But in fact, both life and livelihood are important for any worker. The problem is the quality of security, the failure to create alternative employment and the helplessness of workers. Apart from that, a worker should not want to work with so much risk if he gets the benefit of the social circle in America. So how can two countries be compared with and without social security?
If it is said that the cost of saving lives in a society is low by showing where the workers worked with high risk without paying attention to the above issues, then it is in fact acknowledging the argument of devaluing human life. At the same time, the society was humiliated by calling the decision “socially acceptable.” Researchers have shown that in less developed countries, the cost of statistical life is lower than in developed countries (United States, Japan). Since the rich have the ability to lock down but the poor do not, the cost of saving lives for the poor has been underestimated.
Researchers have honestly explained the limitations, saying that the cost of saving lives is low because of their need — it is not something they choose voluntarily. I mean, it would be wrong to call it just a necessity. The poor have no choice. If wages, food and financial assistance were provided at the right time, they would not have to face this artificial dilemma. At the moment, they are forced to ignore the risk of corona and choose a livelihood. Suffering and pride are also expressed in it. The government’s failure to deliver food has largely pushed them in this direction, if it is just a necessity. So this limitation of research is of such deep concern that there is considerable concern about the application of decisions based on such thinking.
Today, in the face of Corona, the risk to the lives of the lower class is being underestimated, using their own words as an excuse. The victim goes on to say that it is not possible to maintain a lockdown or social distance without eating. For their own convenience, this commentary seemed ‘real’ to economists. At other times what the same people say seems unreal to them. Day after day, when these poor people are saying, increase wages in line with the cost of living, make tap water drinkable at home, prevent air pollution, stop commercialization of education, make public transport more people-friendly, ensure better health care for all, ‘I didn’t think so. Because it increases their work. To reduce their work, they heard, ‘Hunger is greater than corona, livelihood is greater than life’. So it is appropriate to open everything? Even at a time when only 0.13 percent of people in Bangladesh have had their corona tested. The United States has 4 percent, Portugal 8.5 percent, Russia 5.5 percent and Italy about 5.3 percent. Those in the world who are lifting or relaxing lockdowns are making decisions by doing minimal tests, understanding the situation, and building the capacity for a post-lockdown lifestyle. And Bangladesh is going to take a decision not on the basis of the test results, but by presenting the conflict of livelihood and following the approach of that incomparable country unreasonably.
Let’s come back to the topic of social acceptance. Which price would we call socially acceptable? If every 5-member household spends Rs.100 for 2.5 kg of rice, Rs.10 for 100 grams of pulses, Rs.10 for 500 grams of potatoes, Rs.50 for eggs / vegetables, Rs.10 for oil, salt, onion, spices, and Rs.20 for others. The minimum food cost of a family in one day is 200 rupees. In other words, even if the calories and nutrition of a family are excluded in a month, the minimum cost of food is Rs. 6,000. When the government provides financial assistance, the price is easily taken below the current market price, and when the private health center sells something, it takes the price according to the “so-called” market price.
Is it socially acceptable when the government has given financial assistance of Rs 2,500 despite the minimum monthly food cost being Rs 8,000? Or lying in line overnight for a corona test, forcing workers to protest without paying their dues, or going to the homes of jobless workers in the city waiting for relief-are these socially acceptable? Not at all. Poor people do not have such savings. Even if you calculate with minimum generosity, if you add house rent, baby food, medicine, cleaning materials, the monthly expenditure of a family will not be less than 15 thousand rupees. So where does the rest of this money come from? This money does not come from anywhere. The pain that is produced by eating one meal, not eating two meals, is more than the unpaid money.
Suffering has not been measured by economic value or accepted by anyone. So this 2,500 rupees financial assistance is socially unacceptable and insignificant compared to the need. The value of human life, more or less, can never be determined by artificially manufactured ‘social acceptance’. It is an imposed pricing process. An inefficient, unequal distribution and inequality economy is an activity to keep alive the interests of some vested interests at any cost.
The decision to relax everything cannot be based on a model that is unethically devalued. This decision must be based on scientific data, following the exit model that has been successful in implementation. Coronavirus outbreaks need to be gradually reduced through extensive testing, tracing, isolation, and treatment in every area of the city, such as in the cities of Kerala, Vietnam, and Voyugan in Italy. Since the apparent cure before the discovery and use of the vaccine is uncertain, it is necessary to reduce the infection and prepare extensively in every organization and workplace. The provision of information must be ensured in such a way that the possibility of re-infection can be brought under control as soon as possible. The result of making irrational decisions on the pretext of any political will or economic model without scientific data would be extremely suicidal. That would be the responsibility of policy makers and the economists who provide unethical knowledge. Society will not accept its responsibility.
Moshahida Sultana: Associate Professor, Department of Accounting and Information Systems, Dhaka University.