Though many people like to ignore them, public health measures have tradeoffs. In order to create properly balanced public health policy, we must diligently weigh those tradeoffs. That is the message of Dr. Don van der Vaart’s latest piece in the North State Journal. As Dr. van der Vaart writes:

As we struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic, our government has responded by imposing economically severe restrictions on our lives. In doing so, elected officials must remember that imposing costly public health restrictions may do more harm than good. Ultimately, decisions on the stringency of public health requirements must be balanced with the costs of doing so.

A well-functioning economy is critical to improving health care and environmental quality, and the risk of destroying that economy has (and should) place real limits on the measures taken in the name of protecting people and the environment.

The government has made these calculations countless times in public health policy decisions like those environmental agencies face on a daily basis. Dr. van der Vaart writes:

The environmental laws are filled with compromises. The Clean Water Act, for example, explicitly includes cost considerations when setting standards. Cost-benefit analysis often places a dollar amount on a “statistical” lifetime. Benefit calculations include the number of trips to the emergency room, lost workdays, lost school days, and deaths. Our regulatory state is filled with such compromises because we recognize that environmental management would suffer irreparable harm if the economy is severely impaired. Similarly, crippling our economy would leave us ill-prepared to sustain our enviable health care system.

Unfortunately, decisions made by politicians over the past few months have entailed more broad strokes than normal public health measures. Part of the explanation for this is the lack of data in the early days of the pandemic. However, as more information becomes available, a careful look at the numbers should allow for government responses to become more bespoke.

Dr. van der Vaart writes:

There are limits to what a government can spend to save lives. We could force everyone to drive 10 miles per hour and save many lives, but the resultant economy would not generate the resources needed to support health care to uninsured or provide a robust environmental protection program. Does this mean some will suffer simply for want of spending more of the nation’s treasure? Absolutely. And it has done so for years. 

Read the full piece in the North State Journal here. Dr. Don van der Vaart’s piece was originally published on the John Locke Foundation website here.