A TikTok post is proof that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
In the video, Steven Baker, an Idaho chiropractor and self-defined “expert in healing,” argued that the tens of thousands of deaths the country is witnessing don’t come from the coronavirus. They come from the shutdown.
“The economy is what’s killing people,” Baker said in his April 23 video. “Homicide, suicide, heart attacks, mental health institutions, alcoholism, drug use. That’s called deaths of despair.”
Baker cited a stat that when unemployment goes up 1%, deaths of despair go up 58,000 over five years. And he noted that unemployment now is through the roof. At the end of his piece, he doubled down on his key point.
“It’s not the coronavirus that’s killing people. It is the economy. Way more people are dying because of the economy and unemployment than will ever be killed by coronavirus.”
We reached Baker, and when we explained the underlying research to him, he acknowledged that the numbers didn’t add up.
“I admit, I was wrong,” Baker said.
He said he heard the 58,000 figure from a reliable source, and added, “this virus is a lot less dangerous than people think it is.”
Since an extended economic downturn can cause some kinds of deaths to rise, and there are more and more warnings about that, it’s worth a moment to unpack what the real research shows. We’ll start with the researcher whose work, indirectly, lies behind Baker’s central argument.
More than four decades ago, in a report for the congressional Joint Economic Committee, medical sociologist Harvey Brenner assessed the impact of sustained unemployment. Brenner found that in a five-year period, a 1.4% rise in unemployment added about 30,000 deaths due to suicides (1,540), homicides (1,740), liver disease (870) and cardiovascular/kidney disease (26,440).
Factoring in America’s growing population, a recent opinion piece estimated the added deaths to be 58,000. That piece, citing Brenner, was the source of Baker’s claim.
But Brenner, now a professor at the University of North Texas, described how the video fundamentally misused his work.
Brenner said his work is about “the permanent loss of jobs,” not an immediate rise in unemployment, no matter how dramatic. The deaths he identified started two years after a sustained economic downturn.
“It is not now statistically possible to render a verdict on the economy-based mortality implications of the immediate downturn of the past two months,” Brenner said. “Baker’s video is not factually correct.”
Baker builds his entire case on Brenner’s findings. But over the decades, other researchers have cast doubt on Brenner’s core conclusion, some going so far as to say he got things upside down.
There are deaths of despair, said Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. They wrote a New York Times bestseller “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.” The deaths primarily were among less educated white Americans and started in the 1990s.
“They rose before the Great Recession, they grew during the Great Recession and they grew after the Great Recession,” Case and Deaton wrote in a recent op-ed. “The line of rising deaths shows no perceptible effect of the collapse of the economy.”
Case and Deaton point to Spain and Greece as the poster children of the beneficial effects of recession.
“Unemployment in Greece and Spain more than tripled, to the point where more than a quarter of the population was unemployed,” they wrote. “Yet Greece and Spain saw increases in life expectancy that were among the best in Europe.”
As counterintuitive as it might sound, mortality from cardiovascular disease in the U.S. typically falls during a downturn, as Christopher Ruhm, a University of Virginia economist found. One study reported that in a lackluster economy, people exercise more and smoke less. That’s particularly telling, since heart related deaths were a huge factor in Brenner’s total.
Ruhm cautions, though, that the tie between the economy and any given disease is complex and changeable. The reduction in heart disease deaths seen in decades past was not as strong in recent years and might give way further in the current crisis if fear of the virus keeps people from seeking treatment.
Still, he called the statistics in Baker’s video “silly.” Ruhm’s overarching warning is that the country is in new territory.
“The fundamental fact is that we can’t extrapolate from the recent past to understand the effects of the coronavirus,” he said. “The nature and magnitude of the effects are just too different from past experience.”
And as he and other researchers have noted, if the country hadn’t moved to stop the spread of COVID-19, deaths would have mounted astronomically — which would have brought economic devastation in its own right.
A TikTok user said it’s the economic downturn, not the coronavirus, “that’s killing people.” He brought up the statistic that a 1% rise in unemployment causes 58,000 additional deaths over five years, due to heart attacks, drug abuse and other “diseases of despair.”
The researcher whose work lies behind that statistic said it doesn’t apply and that he has no question that current deaths, now over 80,000, stem from the virus.
No analyst said the immediate scale of deaths could be tied to rising unemployment.
We rate this claim False.
Steven Baker, website, accessed May 12, 2020
Highwire, Unemployment: The Other Health Crisis, April 5, 2020
U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, Estimating the Social Costs of National Economic Policy. Implications for Mental and Physical Health and Criminal Aggression, Oct. 26, 1976
U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, Estimating the effect of economic change on national health and social well-being, June 15, 1984
Children’s Health Defense, Will “Deaths of Despair” Outpace Deaths From Coronavirus?, March 23, 2020
Science Direct, The business cycle and health behaviors, January 2013
National Bureau of Economic Research, Recessions, healthy no more?, August 2013
Scientific American, The True Costs of the COVID-19 Pandemic, April 13, 2020
Politico, When Can America Reopen From Its Coronavirus Shutdown?, April 2, 2020
Yale University, Rising unemployment causes higher death rates, Yale researcher shows, May 23, 2002
USA Today, ‘Deaths of despair’: Coronavirus pandemic could push suicide, drug deaths as high as 150k, study says, May 8, 2020
Well Being Trust, The COVID Pandemic Could Lead to 75,000 Additional Deaths from Alcohol and Drug Misuse and Suicide, May 8, 2020
European Commission, The impact of unemployment on heart disease and stroke mortality in European Union countries, July 20, 2016
NY Post, Is unemployment really as deadly as coronavirus?, April 20, 2020
Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Unemployment and coronary heart disease among middle-aged men in Sweden: 39 243 men followed for 8 years, Jan. 8, 2014
JAMA Internal Medicine, The Cumulative Effect of Unemployment on Risks for Acute Myocardial Infarction, Dec. 10, 2012
American Journal of Public Health, Does Despair Really Kill? A Roadmap for an Evidence-Based Answer, June 2019
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, Dec. 8, 2015
Interview, Steven Baker, chiropractor, May 13, 2020
Email exchange, Christopher Ruhm, professor of public policy and economics, University of Virginia, May 12, 2020
Email exchange, Harvey Brenner, professor of health behavior and health systems, University of North Texas, May 12, 2020
Email exchange, Angus Deaton, professor emeritus, Princeton University, May 12, 2020