What Was Said
“You have suicides over things like this when you have terrible economies. You have death. Probably — and I mean definitely — would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus.”
— at a news conference on Monday
“You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression.”
— during a virtual town hall on Fox News on Tuesday
This lacks evidence. Though the question of the overall impact of recessions on mortality remains unsettled, experts disputed Mr. Trump’s claim that an economic downturn would be more deadly than a pandemic. (The White House did not respond when asked for the source of the president’s conjecture.)
“All these effects of economic expansions or recessions on mortality that can be seen, e.g., during the Great Depression or the Great Recession, are tiny if compared with the mortality effects of a pandemic,” said Dr. José A. Tapia, a professor of public health and economics at Drexel University who has written several studies on the topic.
It is difficult to disaggregate the impact of an economic downturn on health and mortality from other factors. Those who become unemployed do tend to have higher levels of depression and bad health. But for the general population, studies have found that death rates from other causes — cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, and traffic and industrial injuries — were either unchanged or actually decreased.
For example, a 2012 study found that suicides did increase during the Depression of the 1930s, but the death rate for car accidents decreased and no significant effects were observed for 30 other causes of death in the United States. A 2009 study found that mortality actually decreased across almost all ages during the Depression. Researchers last year also found that mortality rates overall declined from 2005 to 2010, a period that covered the deep recession that ran from late 2007 through mid-2009.
In comparison, projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that deaths from the coronavirus in the United States could range from 200,000 to 1.7 million.
Mr. Trump is right to be concerned about the trend of increased suicides during recessions, said Aaron Reeves, a professor and sociologist at Oxford University and the lead author of a 2012 study that estimated an excess of 4,750 suicides in the United States after 2007, coinciding with the recession. But in a scenario in which workplaces and businesses reopen and social distancing is more limited but people continue to wash their hands, Mr. Reeves said, “my sense is that this virus would almost certainly kill more people under those conditions than suicides would.”
Moreover, it is not inevitable that a recession would lead to excess suicides. In countries and American states with adequate social programs in place, the impact of economic downturns can be reduced.
“There are some choices that governments have about how you potentially offset the consequences of recessions that may come,” Mr. Reeves said, pointing to the $2 trillion economic package passed by the Senate. “Trump could put in place more to protect those people if he’s worried about suicides.”
Experts also warned that the argument about whether to stave off a recession or contain the coronavirus was a somewhat false choice. If efforts to mitigate the coronavirus abate and cases and deaths spiral out of control, the economy would also be affected by self-imposed lockdowns.
The mental health effects of high levels of unemployment during a recession, too, would have its parallels if the United States suffered colossal loss of lives. That would bring about “communal bereavement,” where there is widespread distress and feelings of loss even among those who do not know the deceased, and its associated health risks, said Ralph Catalano, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley.
“I’d rather contain the epidemic first and then take my chances with the recession,” Mr. Catalano said. “Humans control recessions; mindless nature controls epidemics. It’s just bad medicine to mix epidemiology and economics right now.”
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