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When it's all tallied up, the most precious numbers are those that can't be calculated

Opinion

It’s getting more difficult to get a grip on the meaning and value of numbers – but for those who have lost a family member to the COVID pandemic, one is still the loneliest, writes Rebecca Levingston

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“I love you more than ANYTHING,” he said.

“I love you more than EVERYTHING,” I said.

He regarded me suspiciously, blue eyes and grey matter sparkling.

“What’s bigger?” he asked.

My four-year-old son and his declaration of love demanded an answer to a much bigger philosophical question.

Is anything bigger than everything? Is everything bigger than anything?

Size matters. You see size highlighted, exaggerated, debated and dismissed daily. But it’s getting harder to get a grip on the meaning of numbers. Size and value are vastly different – even a four-year-old knows that.

Dr Evil couldn’t tell the difference between 1 million and 100 billion dollars – cue pinky finger. But as the millions roll into billions with recent Treasury announcements, do you feel like numbers are losing their meaning in 2020?

Debt, deficit, defence, defeat, indifference.

Queensland lost $2.5 billion worth of the GST pie last week when Treasurer Cameron Dick served up some hard truths. The state’s debt will be $59.5 billion by June 2021. Our budget deficit will grow to $8.4 billion in that time. What does that mean to you and the pie you buy?

Right now 1.4 million Australians rely on food charities to put dinner on the table. That’s a record high.
Over the next decade, Australia will spend $270 billion dollars building a larger military. That’s a record high.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said we need to prepare for a post-COVID-19 world that is “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly”. What will that cost? Lives.

Some economists predict Australia is on track to hit $1 trillion dollars in debt. One economist told me on ABC Radio Brisbane recently that Australia’s quick response to flatten the COVID-19 curve was worth $1 trillion dollars to our economy.

You see, your life is worth $4.9 million dollars. How do you put a value on a life? It’s called the value of a statistical life.

UNSW Professor of Economics Richard Holden explained: “To be able to weigh the value of a life against the economic costs of forgone output from lost jobs and business closures requires placing a dollar value on one person’s life.”

In Australia the Government uses a value of $4.9 million per person.

Initial estimates were that 225,000 of us could’ve died from coronavirus based on a 1 per cent fatality rate – and $4.9 million times 225,000 equals $1.1 trillion. You’re worth it. Holden argues that’s what we’ve gained by shutting down the economy.

Meanwhile, the costs of the shutdown are still being calculated.

What’s the cost of a life lost to suicide? Incalculable. Every week I take calls from people furious or despairing at the livelihoods they’ve lost. Others have found opportunity. Can you put a value on quality time gained? To slow down, watch the dog’s tail wag or to breathe deeply in the garden.

Daniel lost money on flights booked to South Africa. He was heading over to work with disadvantaged children. What did those kids lose? Lucy the travel agent lost sleep. Colleagues stood down, frustrated clients and pilots grounded, lost dreams. Virgin Australia lost air time and gained $200 million from the State Government.

My friend’s husband lost his job. They both lost a little faith in the future. My brother, a nurse working in the COVID clinic, lost time sharing a bed with his wife because he slept in the downstairs bedroom to keep separate from the family.

He showered and changed before he played with the kids. He was typically low key about what risks he faced at work. He couldn’t go surfing, which was what he seemed to miss most. How do you put a value on catching the perfect wave? Priceless.

The moments that matter most in life can’t be calculated using mathematical logic. First kiss. Sound of the dog snoring. Hugging your mate. Delighted surprise. Sunrise. Losing your dignity. Disappointment in leaders. Physical pain. Shame.

Anything and everything. Big and small. We all have a secret, personal calculator.

Incidentally, the US puts a value of $10 million per life.

149,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. More than 160 Australians have died from COVID-19. Those numbers will grow.

To the families who’ve lost their beloved mother, father, son, sister – the number that matters most, is one.

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