According to government figures the toll of Covid 19 so far has been 124,419 deaths (if you define a Covid death as any death which occurs within 28 days of someone being confirmed as infected with the virus) or 140,062 (if you define a Covid death as one where the word ‘Covid’ is mentioned anywhere on a death certificate – regardless of whether they have produced a positive tests). These are figures which have been compared with Jumbo Jet-loads or matched up against the loss of life in the Somme. But should we really be using raw death figures – which are hugely emotive – to influence decisions as to how to handle the pandemic?
Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at the LSE and his colleagues have made a case for using a broader measure of the impact of Covid, which takes into account life-years lost as well as the loss of wellbeing among the population at large. The problem with raw death figures is that they do not tell you how much life is lost: the death of an otherwise healthy 20 year old would count the same as the death of a nonagenarian who was already suffering from lung cancer. As we know, the toll of Covid has been very much weighted towards the latter group – unlike, say, measles, which still kills large numbers of children around the world.
It would be better, argues Professor Dolan, if we instead measured the impact of Covid in life-years lost, or better still in Quality-Adjusted Life-Years (QALYs) which take into account whether victims already had health conditions which seriously impacted their quality of life. But even QALYs, they argue, only measure the direct mortal effect of Covid 19. They don’t, for example, take into account the effect of lockdown and other policies on the quality of life experience. What we really need is a metric which allows governments to measure the much-wider impact of Covid restrictions, and other polices.
Professor Dolan proposes something called Wellbeing-Adjusted Life-Years – contracted to the acronym WELLBYs. These have nothing to do with the Archbishop of Canterbury but are assessed via subjective analyses of people’s wellbeing, and the length of time which people are able to enjoy that wellbeing. We have had attempts to measure happiness before, most notably with David Cameron’s ‘happiness index’, which generated a lot of interest at the time it was introduced in 2011. It is still published by the Office of National Statistics – and unsurprisingly saw a drop in wellbeing in 2020 – although few people seem to take any notice of it any more.
Would the government’s policy on Covid 19 have been any different if we took attempts to measure wellbeing more seriously? The pandemic has shown that, much as people talk about wellbeing, the raw death tolls have a far greater power.