What kills more people? The coronavirus or the economic recession it’s causing

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The number of people killed by the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise daily as countries across the world brace for the worst-case scenario. But as the virus hits the global economy through travel bans, quarantines, and infrastructure shutdowns, economists have warned of a longer term impact – people dying as the result of an economic recession.

Global markets have plummeted since the outbreak of coronavirus in January, with some experts already suggesting that coronavirus could cause a recession as bad as the 2008 financial crisis.

“In the worst case we are probably seeing a large global recession, which looks like the early quarters of the 2008 crisis,” Head of Economic Analysis at AKE International Harish Natarajan told Al Arabiya English.

Markets have already plummeted as investors flee equities for safe havens. The US S&P 500 ended a historic 11-year bull run, entering a bear market – the term representing a 20 percent decline in value from all-time highs.

While central banks have moved to respond and calm markets, the economic hit from coronavirus is only just beginning, with the slowdown in global trade likely to be felt more strongly as countries increasingly isolate themselves and dedicate resources to containment.

So far the coronavirus has killed over 5,800 people from direct illness.

But looking at historical precedent, it is likely that far more people will be killed by the knock-on effects of an economic recession, resulting in potential job loss, health deterioration, and a fall in living standards.

Studies from a range of scenarios have drawn connections between economic stress and public health.

Their conclusions were famously captured by actor Brad Pitt in the film The Big Short, a 2015 dramatization of the events leading up to the 2008 Great Recession, when he remarked: “Here's a number for you: for every 1 percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die.”

As might be expected, the reality is more complicated than Hollywood.

A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggested that suicide rates across Europe rose in 2009 following years of falling and remained elevated until 2011. The rise corresponded to an additional 7,950 suicides compared to previous trends in 2007 and 2010. A similar trend was also seen in Canada and the US.

Another study, published in medical journal The Lancet, found that the 2008 economic crisis was likely linked to around 260,000 excess cancer-related deaths in Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries alone between 2008 and 2010.

“Unemployment rises were significantly associated with an increase in all-cancer mortality and all specific cancers except lung cancer in women,” the journal cited as a result from the study.

Given the huge potential impact on long-term public health, authorities have been forced to weigh up these short-term and long-term factors when calculating their response to the crisis.

While most governments have advised avoiding mass gatherings and canceled public events to try and contain the virus, these measures may help contribute to an economic slowdown – and therefore put more lives at risk in the long run. The UK, for instance, has already pledged an economic stimulus package to ward off coronavirus-fueled damage, but has so far neglected to take any drastic public health matters.

But as more people die every day, the pressure on governments to act for short-term containment goals grows – with potentially disastrous long-term consequences.

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