'How could you say that?': Economist slammed for 'horrible' coronavirus idea

A leading economics professor prompted heated debate during her appearance on ABC’s Q&A on Monday night after she suggested Australia would be potentially better off without any form of economic lockdown, even during an extreme epidemic.

Professor Gigi Foster from the University of NSW delivered her blunt viewpoint asking how many lives will the lockdown cost, when the show’s panel was asked if Australia should be taking a more pragmatic approach to deaths in its response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Professor Jodie McVernon from the Doherty Institute, which has been advising the government on its steps with modelling throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, stressed Australia had “averted” the alarming scenes in some European countries where ICU capacity had been overwhelmed thanks to its rigorous measures.

Yet an angered Prof Foster asked what are we sacrificing in terms of lives when we lock the economy down. She argued lives and quality of life are also lost during a lockdown and they must be weighed up against lives lost directly to coronavirus.

“I reject the idea it is lives versus the economy,” she said.

“It's lives versus lives. The economy is about lives. It's about protection of lives and human welfare and livelihood. You can make an apples to apples comparison although people find it difficult to do so.”

Lives are also lost by a lockdown, economist argues

Prof Foster argued economists try to count the lost lives of a lockdown, “quality adjusted life years – the normal currency that people use when they are making decisions in developed countries about how much to spend on saving people’s lives”.

“What frustrates me is when people talk about the economic costs of the lockdown they often don't think in detail in terms of counting lives, as we do with the epidemiological models,” she said.

Professor Gigi Foster explains why she believes the country would have benefited from no economical lockdown. Source: ABC
Professor Gigi Foster explains why she believes the country would have benefited from no economical lockdown. Source: ABC

“Has anyone thought about how would you get a measure of the traded lives when we lock an economy down? What are we sacrificing in terms of lives?

“Economists have tried to do that and we try to do that in currencies like the value of a statistical life … and those quantities enable you to think about lives on one side versus lives on the other.

“If you do that kind of calculus you realise very quickly that even with a very, very extreme epidemic, in Australia, we are still potentially better off not having an economic lockdown in the first place because of the incredible effects that you see not just in a short-run way but in many, many years to come.”

ACTU boss says alternative to lockdown is ‘horrible’

Yet the Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus hit back, saying Australia’s current measures had prevented an outcome witnessed in the other badly-hit countries.

“How can you say that? We’re avoiding what’s happened in the UK what’s happening in the US, the idea of having our ICUs overrun, our healthcare workers dying as well, it’s just the most horrible thought,” she said.

So far Australia has recorded 72 deaths.

The US has exceeded 42,000. That’s 3,125 deaths per 25 million people, Australia’s population.

“It’s horrible either way,” Prof Foster hit back.

“In order to have a proper discussion about trade-offs, you need to think in terms of lives you’re giving up.

“I know it's invisible lives and difficult to imagine when we aggregate, for example, all of the health effects and the mental health effects and the effects of people right now who have illnesses other than COVID-19.”

An elderly man wears a mask in Melbourne. Source: Getty
Strict social distancing measures were implemented in Australia to avoid loss of lives to coronavirus. Source: Getty

Online outrage over remarks

Prof Foster’s comments sparked outrage online, with hundreds taking to social media to lambast her viewpoint.

“Gigi Foster is not balance. She is over the top and quite unacceptable. Thankfully every other panel member is quite wonderful and their indiv expertises show out in great discussion,” one person wrote.

“What a disgraceful and cold thought process this woman has. [She] has no respect for humanity,” another said.

Other economists stepped in, revealing they didn’t share Prof Foster’s viewpoint.

“Gigi Foster makes me ashamed to be an economist,” one wrote.

Assistant Professor of Economics at George Washington University, Steven Hamilton, an Australian, said he felt “embarrassed” over her remarks.

“I’m an economics professor, and Gigi does not speak for me,” tweeted, garnering over 1,000 likes.

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