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COVID-19: Saving lives or saving the economy?

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Published on Monday, 17 May 2021

A study conducted by Dr Christophe Lesschaeve, Prof. Josip Glaurdić, and Dr Michal Mochtak from the Department of Social science looks into the public attitudes towards the difficult trade-off imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdowns decrease the spread of the virus but amplify the damage to the economy. Are people willing to accept a higher death toll in an attempt to limit the damage of the economy, or is saving lives considered nonnegotiable?

The coronavirus pandemic constitutes the greatest public health crisis of the century. Governments’ reaction to the threat centred on “flattening the curve”. Social distancing, limited contact between people, confinement and closing down of businesses have been found to reduce the spread of the virus but at a high economic cost. The International Monetary fund (IMF) projected that most economies would decrease by 10 percent and that millions of jobs would be lost in 2020. This has led many to conclude that the COVID-19 pandemic involves an inevitable trade-off between limiting the public health effects of the virus and preventing an economic collapse.

Health before wealth

This raises the question of how people look at this trade-off? In a new study from the Department of Social Sciences, Dr Christophe Lesschaeve, Prof. Josip Glaurdić, and Dr Michal Mochtak analysed the public attitudes towards this trade off of health versus wealth. The results show that public opinion generally favored saving lives even at a steep economic cost. However, the willingness to trade lives for the economy was greater when the different health and economic consequences of lockdown policies for the young and the elderly were emphasised. Free market views also make people more acceptant of higher casualties, as do fears that the instituted measures will lead to a permanent expansion of government control over society.

For this study, a representative sample of over 7000 citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia answered a survey between 27 April and 16 May 2020. With their economies in flux and politics balancing between democracy and authoritarianism, the region shares many characteristics with other European societies in Central and Eastern Europe. Therefore, the three countries serve as excellent case study to the health versus wealth trade-off in a non-western context.

A year later, while restrictions still apply, are people still willing to rejects any concession in the effort to save lives, even if it means economic harm? To understand the impact of time on the perception of the trade-off of heath versus wealth, the researchers are currently collecting a second wave of data.

The study was recently accepted for publication in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly – ranked globally as the best journal for public opinion research.