COVID-19 vs. Child Mortality

Yesterday I recommended listening to the recent episode of The Joe Rogan Experience with Elon Musk. If you have an opinion on Elon but have not taken the time to listen to him speak, I encourage you to either drop your opinion or take the time to listen to him speak. Far too many people these days develop opinions on people they do not know at all. These opinions are formed from headlines, tweets, and the opinions of other people who also do not know the person they have formed their opinions on. Podcasts, blogs, and books are better. Many understand Elon is extraordinarily smart. Having read his biography and listened to him speak for at least 5 hours worth of podcasts, I believe Elon is an extraordinarily good person too.

In his conversation with Joe, Elon discussed the concept of “life years”. Joe mentioned he had read something that suggested the average person who died from COVID-19 would have lived another 10 years had they not died of COVID-19. Elon said this number sounded much too high. For now, let us take it for what it is, however, I imagine it is more likely to be accurate or high than it is to be low. Early reports from China said the average age of death was 75 and recent reports from Pennsylvania said it was 79. Both of these numbers are higher than the global average lifespan of 71 years. That does not look like a decade of life lost per person, but the data is not nearly as good as I would like it to be, so I will give the 10 year estimate the benefit of the doubt. Multiply that 10 years per person by the 289,000 COVID-19 deaths reported worldwide and you get a product of 2.89 million life years lost as a result of COVID-19 so far this year. This is an inconceivably terrible number to be sure, but less so than the numbers I am about to introduce as they relate to children-under-5 mortality.

For every COVID-19 death this year, approximately 10 children under 5 years old have died (2.76 million). Over-conservatively assuming a death age of 4 combined with the lowest national average life expectancy in the world (52 in Sierra Leone), that equals 48 years lost per life. Multiply that 48 years per person by the 2.76 million lives that have been lost of children under 5 this year and you get a product of 132.48 million. That means for every 1 life year lost to COVID-19 this year, 45 life years are lost to deaths of children under 5. It is worth reiterating how intentionally over-conservative my assumptions were. The real ratio could easily be greater than 100 to 1. If only we focused on preventing these deaths of children under 5 half as much as we have focused on preventing deaths from COVID-19. We could save a lot of lives, and many more healthy life years.

Additionally, children-under-5 mortality seems to be a much more quantifiable problem to solve. We can save lives for known costs as opposed to the unknown consequences of shutting down the entire economy. I know we know how to solve more than 90% of the problems some countries are facing with child mortality because other countries have already solved them. The mortality rate for under 5-year-olds in low-income countries is 14 times the rate of those same aged kids in high-income countries. Why is the world not focused on closing that gap? High-income countries clearly know how to effectively limit the number of under-5-year-old lives lost in a way that low-income countries must either not have the knowledge, money, or desire to do themselves. I doubt it is due to a lack of desire. Why do we as humanity let this persist, but when it comes to COVID-19, there is no price too great to save a single human life? If we lessened the death rate of children under 5 by just 10% this year, we would have saved as many lives as have been lost to COVID-19, and at least 4-5x as many life years, if not many more.

There are too many terrible issues for us to continue to pretend there is no price not worth paying to eliminate one single issue that has not so far been as bad as many others that we ignore despite the fact that they are much more clearly preventable and less costly to do. Why don’t we save the kids?