I’m taking off my mom hat for a minute so we can talk about death not as an emotional issue but as a cold, hard cash issue. Basically, we cost society money from birth until we begin working, then we are paying back the investment until we retire, when we are again using more resources than we produce. Dying early costs money. It costs a lot of money. From the time we are born, society invests in us. It invests time and money in vaccinations, education, and the time spent away from work by parents and caregivers to raise us. Children are expensive to maintain, but at least once they hit working age they ‘pay back’ the initial investment by earning enough to for society to invest in more children. From the time a child is a couple of months old, if they die before they’ve lived out their economically useful life, it is an economic loss to society.
Drowning can cause serious economic losses in two ways – either by dying, or by being seriously injured. Dying means the permanent loss of someone who will contribute positively to the economy. Almost drowning can mean not contributing positively to the economy and also requiring expensive medical and personal care. I’m going to look only at the U.S. where I have some decent data, but the same arguments can be made for every country, just adjust the amounts to fit each national economy. According to the WHO, in the U.S., 45% of drowning deaths are among the most economically active segment of the population. There are a number of ways of calculating the ‘economic value of a life’, but for today I’ll use the conservative numbers found in the recent National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF) white paper on drowning. The NSPF estimates $5.3 billion per year in direct and indirect costs from fatal and non-fatal drowning that occur in a single year. To put that in perspective, it costs $1712 to vaccinate a child in the U.S., which means the money we lose because of drowning could be used to vaccinate over 3 million children every year, which is almost as many children are born in the U.S. every year. If you want to flip that argument on it’s head, every single year that we are not addressing drowning, we are tossing away the equivalent amount of money on vaccines for people who will die from drowning instead of a disease.
There are ‘hidden’ costs which make the problem even more expensive. Lifesaving programs can be early casualties in a poor economy, despite the fact that many of the programs operate with volunteers on a shoe-string budget. And yet, according to the CDC, the chance of drowning at a beach protected by lifeguards can be less than 1 in 18 million. Talk about a great return on investment. With thanks to Bob Pratt and Kevin McCarthy for their input, when budgets for lifeguards are cut or eliminated, equipment falls into disrepair and lack of regular training puts the rescuers at higher risk. Not to mention, if there is no lifeguard and someone drowns, or almost drowns, the cost of recovering a single body – which requires several days and several jurisdictions – can easily exceed the cost of a lifeguard program for the whole season. Given the magnitude of these numbers, effective, proven drowning prevention programs, including comprehensive lifeguard coverage, easily passes any cost-benefit analysis.
Putting my mom hat on again, it is repulsive to reduce the value of a human life down to a cost-benefit analysis. We lose our very humanity if we do not consider the emotional toll of losing a loved one, and particularly a child. And face it, if we had to subject ‘having children’ to the current focus on quarterly returns, society would die out in a generation because children are expensive and if you really do your job as a parent well they leave home just as you are starting to get a return on your emotional and financial investment.
Fortunately we don’t make decisions about our children based on the bottom line, but the bottom line in drowning prevention is that we must make an economic argument for addressing the issue of drowning and making it a priority among all the competing causes, and for that we need to keep our focus on the bottom line.