Radio review: The Price of Life, For Fast’s Sake, and Stumped

15 May 2020

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“EVERY death is a tragedy.” It is a necessary, if questionable, cliché, which is repeated daily at the an­­nouncement of more Covid-19 deaths. The notion that one death might be more tragic than another, or one life be worth more than another, is inconceivable. And yet there are people who routinely face the task of making such calculations, and we met some of them in Anita Anand’s chilling The Price of Life (Radio 4, Monday of last week).

Meet Ken Feinberg, officially the “Special Master” in charge of the 9/11 compensation scheme. Fein­berg’s job was to meet each of the bereaved families after the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks, and tell them how much money each would be given. The calculation in­­volved combining a fixed rate per person and dependant with the sum of earnings lost over a lifetime. The payouts thus ranged from $850,000 for an undocumented waiter to $7.5 million for a young stockbroker.

We naturally gasp at the inequity, and Feinberg was not there to defend it. Indeed, he pointed out the wider injustice of a process that singled out victims of these particular atrocities but has not been implemented for other terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

The professionals who make up National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence might be some­what less colourful than the out-spoken Feinberg, but the decisions that they make over drug purchase for the NHS involve similarly cold and objective calculations, in which quality and length of life are
the determinant parameters. The “health economist” Dr Susan Griffin ex­­plained the QUALY (quality-adjusted life-year) measure, which ranges from one (a year of perfect health) to zero (death); and to one of which is, in normal circumstances, assigned a reasonable cost of £20,000-£30,000. No cost-benefit ana­­­lysis, she says, has been made in respect of the present crisis; instead, a “rule of rescue” has been adopted: save life at whatever cost.

In For Fast’s Sake (Asian Net­work podcast, released last Friday), the talk was all about how to conduct congregational prayers dur­ing Ramadan. Is it OK to stream recordings of Qur’anic recitals by expert imams, or do you have to make do at home? The opinion offered here was the latter. But it would be unfair to present this show as some vehicle of un­­flinching ortho­­doxy; presented by Yasser Ranjha, the discussion was lively, in­­formal, and self-deprecating.

In the continuing search for better worlds of the imagination, the World Service’s cricket strand Stumped (Saturdays) last week of­­fered up St Helena, where the game is still being played. Famed prin­cipally as the island of exile for Napoleon, this South Atlantic island is free of Covid-19, and, but for two weekends’ disruption, the St Helena cricket league has enjoyed a full season, with eight teams involved in five competitions. Not bad for a population of 4000.

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