NEW YORK: How many deaths are acceptable to reopen the country before the coronavirus is completely eradicated? “One is too many,” President Trump insists, a politically safe formulation that any leader would instinctively articulate. But until there is a vaccine or a cure for the coronavirus, the macabre truth is that any plan to begin restoring public life invariably means trading away some lives.

The question is how far will leaders go to keep it to a minimum. Some of the more provocative voices on the political right say that with tens of millions of Americans out of work and businesses collapsing, some people must be sacrificed for the greater good of restoring the economy quickly. To many, that sounds unthinkable, but less inflammatory experts and policymakers also acknowledge that there are enormous costs to keeping so much of the workforce idle, with many of the unemployed struggling to pay for food, shelter or medical care.

And so the nation’s leaders are left with the excruciating dilemma of figuring out how to balance life and livelihood on a scale unseen in generations. “Every governor in the nation is asking that,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, where 2,700 have died and more than 1 million have lost jobs, said this week. “There’s no such thing as zero risk in the world in which we’re living. But we know that not taking measures to control the spread means that’s going to translate into lives lost.”

The idea that the government translates life to dollars and cents may sound bloodless but it is not unusual. A White House report from 2017, for instance, estimated the cost of 41,000 deaths attributed to opioid overdoses in 2015 at $431.7 billion, an average of $10.5 million per person. By that calculation, the 60,000 deaths projected from the coronavirus would be valued at $631.8 billion — while the roughly 2 million lives theoretically saved by lockdowns would be worth about $21 trillion, or nearly eight times the $2.7 trillion in relief spending brokered by Congress and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

But James Stock, a Harvard economist who served on President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said this crisis goes beyond such ordinary calculations because a shuttered economy represents an almost existential threat to the very idea of America.

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