KOKOMO  — “What’s a granny worth?” My next door neighbor correctly judged that I was baiting him with the question. This discussion occurred while several neighbors were having a safe social distance happy hour outside of our homes. I’m sure it was an interesting sight as neighbors sat in lawn chairs spread out on both sides of our neighborhood street drinking a glass of wine or a bottle of beer.  

After much discussion over the issue of toilet paper and sanitizer stockpiles, the talk gradually turned to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the virtual shutdown of our economy. I turned to my next door neighbor and asked the question about how much we were willing to spend to save a granny, when my neighbor across the street yelled out, “Hey, watch it, I’m a granny too!” The truth be known, we were all of the age to be either grannies or grandpas. Before we could hash out a consensus answer, the heavens opened up on us and drowned out our little neighborhood attempt at maintaining some normalcy.

The question still hangs in the air. With the staggering loss of incomes, jobs, market valuations and $2 trillion stimulus bills, just what is the dollar value of a higher risk person?

We all intuitively know that there is no simple answer to this question, but that won’t stop economists from totaling up the cost of depressing the curve and then asking whether the cost was worth the effort. There will be other economists who will try and calculate the incremental cost of saving just one more life. No matter what the answer may be, the perception of what is the correct answer will drive governmental decisions for many generations to come.

How many reserve ventilators, masks and hazmat suits above normal demand should each hospital maintain? Who pays for them and their storage? Should cities, counties and state governments stockpile and maintain their own stash of these critical items? Should the federal government create an enormous strategic reserve of vital items similar to the national oil reserve? Should the reserve be large enough so that 50% of our population is covered, or should it be 100%? Every time a new strain of a virus rears its ugly head, should government immediately focus attention on creating 700,000,000 test kits? Does government mandate earlier shut downs of our economy in an effort to get the jump on depressing the curve? Just about every question leads to another, ad infinitum.

Government at all levels does an amazing job of figuratively locking the barn door after the horse is long gone. Our military is always busy fighting past wars. Government is generally not equipped to take preemptive action on the biggest threats that we face. The cost of advance action always seems greater than we are willing to pay, yet usually only a fraction of the cost of locking the barn door. A good example of this is the mountain of money we spent to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  

Here are four rhetorical questions for your consideration:

Since we know that an earthquake-induced tsunami striking off the coast of Washington and Oregon is not a question of if, but when, should government create a zone of non-occupation within five miles of the coastline of those two states?

Since we know that “the big one” earthquake is long overdue in Los Angeles, should any further building permits be allowed?

Since we know that Yellowstone National Park is actually the immense caldera of a very active super volcano, should development within 100 miles be sanctioned by government?

Since we know conclusively and absobloominlutely that global warming is melting all of the ice caps and the sea level will rise to dangerous levels and that hurricanes are a natural annual occurrence, shouldn’t we move everyone living along the southeastern coast into the heartland of our country?

You accuse me of baiting you?  Well, of course I am.

The fact is that not only does government not have the financial resources to address every Armageddon scenario, it most assuredly lacks the willpower and fortitude to act in advance of the multitude of potentially cataclysmic events that make COVID-19 look like a head cold.

This brings us back to the original question, what are we willing to spend to save granny?

I imagine that there are three possible questions with most people instead of just my simple query. What am I willing to spend to save your grandmother?  What am I willing to spend to save my grandmother? What am I willing to have you spend to save me?

If your answer is the same for all three questions, congratulations, you are a truly compassionate human being. Unless your answer is to spend nothing and then, well.

My guess is that people might have different answers for each of the three questions. I suspect the answers might be something like this. I would take a week off work and watch Netflix on the couch to save your grandmother. I would stay at home, self-isolate and endure toilet paper shortages for as long as possible to save my grandparent. I would self-quarantine, observe all health department instructions and advocate that the president send in the army, navy and marines to keep people from breathing anywhere near me.  I would also like a private hospital dedicated exclusively to my recovery.

All kidding aside, it is much too early to calculate the cost of each potential life saved. COVID-19 may cost our country as much as $15 trillion before we are done. The ultimate question will be is the final dollar figure too high to have been spent based on those who were potentially saved from death. The only way society can even remotely answer this question is to know the difference between how many would have died if we had taken no action and what the final number of deaths from the virus were.  Only after knowing how many net lives were saved can we accurately answer the question of what’s a granny worth.

There will be those of you who are squeamish about asking such a crude question. Many of you who were fine with the rationing of health care with the Affordable Care Act will be appalled at such a brazen question. However you feel about the cost, it will be discussed and turned into a political football. The sad thing is that because you won’t know if depressing the curve saved your life or the life of someone you love, you will find it nearly impossible to give an unbiased answer.

Be honest. 

Did you really care that much about a person dying in Wuhan, China, from some mysterious respiratory problem?  But when that nasty bug comes to your neighborhood, it’s a completely different matter. We the people will have the final say as to what granny’s life is worth, but we’ll have to wait for the final bill to make that call.

Stay safe, wash your hands and practice safe social distancing. 

Dunn is the former Howard County Republican chairman.