A Filipino nurse attends to an elderly woman in a file photo predating the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: AFP/Jay Directo

Recessions save lives. This statistical truth has been a thorn in the side of capitalism and neoliberalism, and a befuddling conundrum for economists and sociologists. This conveniently ignored inconvenient truth has been the subject of much investigation, but none of the umpteen interdisciplinary studies probing the enigma have yielded substantial or convincing insight.

Perhaps the ideological perturbation posed to the Western world by this fact has held back its evaluation – economic inequality. However, the advocates of economic booms have little to worry about unless they’re plutocrats. In the long term, the positive relationship between economic growth and longevity is well established.

A lot of reputable research literature exists depicting a just-as-consistent and certain association of periods of recessions with increased longevity. However, a similar volume of counter-indicative literature exists that criticizes the former’s methodologies, proposes a lagging causality (delayed materialization of effects) of macroeconomic cycles and phases with life expectancies.

Even articles published in the world’s premier scientific journal Nature are divided on the issue. However, what we can be sure of is that every major recession period has been accompanied by a conspicuous decline in mortality rates.

The fact that notable recession events have gone hand-in-hand with conspicuously lower mortality rates has been known ever since William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, sociologists at New York’s Columbia University, analyzed 50 years’ worth of US economic and mortality data. The duo, being seasoned and keen researchers, were wary of mistaking mere correlation for causality – a classic attributive fallacy.

They inspected two probable pitfalls – a possible lag between economic downturn and rise in deaths, that is, whether the adverse health effects of scarcity took effect after a while, and if documentation of deaths was more discreet and meticulous during booms. Their further scrutiny categorically ruled both of these out. Eminent social epidemiologist Edgar Sydenstricker wrote to the US Public Health Service in 1933, at the beginning of the Great Depression. Other major recession events follow suit.

According to statistics from the International Labor Organization, around 2.3 million people succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year. ILO data also show that 340 million occupational incidents transpire annually, while 140 million victims suffer from occupation-related ailments.

Injuries claimed almost 5 million lives in 2016, about 30% of which were in road/traffic-related accidents, according to statistics presented as part of the Global Health Estimates by the World Health Organization.

In the same data, once can observe that the respiratory ailments chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infection, and cancer – of the trachea, bronchus or lungs – are three of the leading causes of death, consistently featuring in the top 10 places, with the former occupying two of the top five spots, year after year. Many of these cases are caused or contributed to by two man-made factors: pollution and chronic smoking. Smoking results in about 8.2 million deaths annually.

On the issue of air-pollution-related mortality, the WHO says, “The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.” The latest research puts it at 8 million.

Pollution and smoking can aggravate existing ailments and weaken the natural recuperative ability and tenacity of respiratory system exposing them to greater jeopardies and increased risks of complications posed by other respiratory ailments. Recent research published in Cardiovascular Research found that air pollution reduces average human life expectancy by three years (for comparison, smoking takes off 2.2 years) and put the annual toll for 2015 at 8.8 million. Water pollution caused 1.8 million deaths in the same year.

During the current Covid-19 pandemic, strict lockdowns are averting workplace accidents, preventing narcotic consumption, reducing vehicular and industrial pollution, and precluding transport-related fatalities. These are the same factors that contribute to a lowering of mortality rates during recessions.

Moreover, less work during recessions also very often translates to more sleep, better diet (carefully home-cooked, balanced and nutritious), less work-related stress, and more opportunity for exercise, leading to amelioration of cardiovascular problems.

Having less money to spare also lowers the consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. Having more time to dedicate to leisurely, creative or recreative pursuits and being with family could also enhance bodily and mental integrity and extend lifespans.

All these factors are currently being amplified during strict nationwide stay-at-home quarantines. Of course, the increased chance of deaths in home accidents such as falling-related injuries, fires, and suffocation should be factored in this. Nevertheless, a protracted and largely unrelenting lockdown is bound to reduce the death rate, given that it eliminates the scopes of multiple leading causes of death.

Economists have foreseen a watershed recession for more than a month now – it is now more of a matter of when than if, while some suspect it has already begun. The pandemic has impeded and obstructed supply-chain flows, upset supply-demand equilibria, and incapacitated resource procurement and most forms of production. Social distancing and lockdowns have adversely affected the economy.

Not only does a lockdown exert the same, and more pronounced, effects on longevity as a recession does, but it also leads to recession itself. There is an increase in mortality caused by the disease competing with an increase in longevity caused by industrial, technological and economic incapacitation – together these determine the influence of the crisis on life expectancy. There thus exists an optimal point, a “sweet spot,” for life expectancy that lies at the intersection of primarily three interplaying factors: the extent of the spread of Covid-19, the longevity extension caused by preventive measures, and the longevity extension due to the recession caused thereby.

Of course, the human socioeconomic and political-policy response to it, the lingering of disease-related apprehension, the persistence of precaution, and the permanence of institutional change it ushers in, will determine its specifics. The pandemic is expected to leave a lasting impact not only practically and institutionally but also normatively, ideologically, and psychologically. Hence it would not be an overstatement to say that there might just exist a silver lining amid this morbid semblance, just not a very conspicuous one.

The very existence of this rather obscure bright side depends on how we deal with the epidemic – the spread, the mortality rate, and the flattening of the curve – the pivotal sweet spot is the fulcrum of the teetering see-saw of demographics, either end of which dips into decrement.

However, the key takeaway is not “the greater good” or some “statistical satisfaction,” but a realization of how neglectful we are of threats non-acute in nature – those as ubiquitous, sizable and as invisible as the coronavirus, that result from our own actions yet occur so unsystematically and regularly that we stay blissfully ignorant of them. Omnipresent slow killers such as pollution and smoking abound in our world, yet we casually tuck them away in a conveniently remote recess of the mind, informed yet tantalisingly unaware.

Let us not derive a figment of solace and consolation from the salubrious effects of the pandemic but acknowledge the multitude of equally sizaable and pressing hazards that our daily environments abound in, that just happen to be exposed by a competing, more conspicuous and acute threat.

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Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.