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Binghamton University, State University of New York

Changing the value of life for COVID-19 victims is harmful to society

The coronavirus has killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, but placing special emphasis on these victims compared to people who have died from other causes can get in the way of making the right decisions, according to Subimal Chatterjee, SUNY distinguished teaching professor at Binghamton University’s School of Management.

“One of the most fascinating things that I have seen is how people are able to quickly differentiate one life from another. So for example, if somebody dies on a ventilator while struck with the virus, we somehow think that this life lost is more tragic compared to say, a person who died at home from a heart attack because the ambulance could not come in time. We always shy away from valuing a life, and yet we now seem very comfortable putting a label on it.  Sweden, for example, took a conscious decision to keep the country open knowing that there would be lives lost, but they reasoned that the lives lost would be predominantly among their elderly population. They too are putting labels on life, it would seem," Chatterjee says.

"What makes one life more special than another? There is a literature on the ‘identifiable victim effect’ which suggests that once the victim has a name that life is more precious. The coronavirus seems to be giving an identity to strangers. Is this a good thing? Certainly, if it makes us more caring as a society. Certainly not, if it makes us less caring towards others. That is something policy makers would need to think about as they make the very painful tradeoffs in the days ahead.”

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