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‘How much is a life worth?’: Abbott delivers controversial COVID-19 speech

In a speech that drew the ire of Australian commentators and politicians, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has critiqued governments for avoiding “uncomfortable questions about the level of deaths that we might have to live with” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Delivering a keynote speech about Australia and the coronavirus to UK thinktank Policy Exchange, Abbott said while the generation that faced World War Two was ready to risk life to preserve freedom, the current generation is “ready to risk freedom to preserve life”.

Unpacking the question, “how much is a life worth?”, Abbott said governments were approaching the pandemic like trauma doctors – who spare almost no effort to keep a person alive – rather than health economists “trained to pose uncomfortable questions about a level of deaths we might have to live with”.

“When a cancer patient wants access to very expensive new drugs, governments normally ask tough questions about how much good life will be gained before making it available; and what the alternative might be,” Abbott explained.

“So far, Australia’s national government has committed some $300 billion to soften the economic consequences of state governments’ enforced social distancing. Even if mandatory shut-down really was all that avoided the initially-predicted 150,000 deaths, that still works out at about $2 million per life saved.

“If the average age of those who would have died is 80, even with roughly 10 years of expected life left, that’s still $200,000 per quality life year – or substantially beyond what governments are usually prepared to pay for life-saving drugs.

“Once it was clear that a 60 per cent infection rate and a 1 per cent death rate was unlikely, shouldn’t we have started to ask whether the cure was proportionate to the disease?”

Politicians across the political divide denounced Abbott’s stance.

Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians Richard Colbeck said while he had not heard the former Health Minister’s comments, he did not agree.

“I would condemn the comments because that’s not what I believe,” he told parliament on Wednesday.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said the former Prime Minister was “never known for his compassion” and told reporters in Canberra that his comments were “a new low”.

“To make the comments that he did, I think, will cause a great deal of hurt for Australians who read those comments, particularly the families of those who have been impacted by COVID-19,” Albanese said.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann argued the economic cost of the virus response was justified.

“The first priority was to protect people’s health and save people’s lives by suppressing the spread of the virus, and that was absolutely necessary,” he told reporters.

“As part of that, we did have to impose significant restrictions on the economy in order to suppress the spread of the virus, and that was appropriate.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also claimed he had not seen the comments.

“My focus today has been on the millions of Australians who have received the news today that Australia has entered into the worst recession as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

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