Trump’s Baseless Claim That a Recession Would Be Deadlier Than the Coronavirus

“All these effects of economic expansions or recessions on mortality that can be seen, e.g., during the Great Depression or the Great Recession, are tiny if compared with the mortality effects of a pandemic,” said Dr. José A. Tapia, a professor of public health and economics at Drexel University who has written several studies on the topic.

It is difficult to disaggregate the impact of an economic downturn on health and mortality from other factors. Those who become unemployed do tend to have higher levels of depression and bad health. But for the general population, studies have found that death rates from other causes — cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, and traffic and industrial injuries — were either unchanged or actually decreased.

For example, a 2012 study found that suicides did increase during the Depression of the 1930s, but the death rate for car accidents decreased and no significant effects were observed for 30 other causes of death in the United States. A 2009 study found that mortality actually decreased across almost all ages during the Depression. Researchers last year also found that mortality rates overall declined from 2005 to 2010, a period that covered the deep recession that ran from late 2007 through mid-2009.

In comparison, projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that deaths from the coronavirus in the United States could range from 200,000 to 1.7 million.

Mr. Trump is right to be concerned about the trend of increased suicides during recessions, said Aaron Reeves, a professor and sociologist at Oxford University and the lead author of a 2012 study that estimated an excess of 4,750 suicides in the United States after 2007, coinciding with the recession. But in a scenario in which workplaces and businesses reopen and social distancing is more limited but people continue to wash their hands, Mr. Reeves said, “my sense is that this virus would almost certainly kill more people under those conditions than suicides would.”

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