Is the damage caused by the lockdown worse than the virus itself? That’s a question raised by some world leaders and commentators who claim that economic and social hardship caused by strict coronavirus restrictions places a heavier burden on society than the death rate caused by the disease.
These lockdown skeptics point to the tens of millions of US jobs lost in an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression, the warning by the European Commission of a recession of “historic proportions” and the Bank of England’s fear that the British economy is facing its worst crash in three centuries.
The drumbeat of dissent had its moment on the popular British debate show, the BBC’s Question Time, when Luke Johnson, a prominent UK businessman with a maverick streak, argued in the May 14 broadcast that the UK had over-reacted to Covid 19. “Imagine the agony of two million more people,” he said of the number who could lose their jobs amid a sustained UK lockdown. “How many deaths might flow from that?”
US President Donald Trump made similar claims in late March, telling Fox News: “You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression.”
His Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro insists that economic stagnation will hurt Brazil more than the virus itself, and on Thursday called the decision made by governors and mayors to close some non-essential sectors of the economy “a terrible disgrace.”
These arguments are unconvincing, say economists. To fix the global economy, fix the global pandemic, they add. Survey data shows the US economy was winding down even before US states were mandating stay-at-home policies. Fear of the virus mean people were shopping less, small businesses were closing and cutting employment.
“What I think they [the skeptics] are missing is this wasn’t some left-wing conspiracy to stop the economy from working. This was middle-aged people, like me, who didn’t want to see their parents die,” Charlie Robertson, chief economist at investment bank Renaissance Capital, told CNN.
Nor is there enough data to say lockdowns are more deadly than the disease – which has infected over 5.5 million people worldwide and killed more than 350,000.
“None of us [economists] have enough information to know if lockdowns are worth it or not. We are not operating in the realm of perfect information or even much information,” Thomas Hale, associate professor in public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, told CNN.
Studies of previous recessions have shown that all-cause mortality tends to fall during them, although suicides increase. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was found there were declines in mortality and gains in life expectancy, according to a research paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
But there is no precedent to the scale of the lockdowns enacted around the world to combat the coronavirus. The best we can do, say economists, is to track the emerging evidence. “We don’t know much about the epidemiology of this disease; we don’t know how long it will last, how the economy will react – these are all big unknowns – so the best we can do at this point is follow the evidence we do have, be completely committed to following the science and updating our strategies as we get new information,” Hale added.
There is no doubt that lockdowns have wrought economic chaos. Restrictions launched to counteract the disease have exacerbated existing inequalities in education and the workplace, and between genders, races, and socio-economic backgrounds.
Academics warn of a new lost generation as more disadvantaged students face increased obstacles to achieving good grades under lockdown. Historically underpaid, women are the hardest hit by the economic slump in the US, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In Britain, men working in low-skilled jobs are dying from coronavirus at a higher rate than their white-collar peers. Migrant workers, treated as second-class citizens in the Gulf, Singapore, and India, have found themselves unable to afford their next meal or suffering the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak in those countries.
Yet there is widespread agreement among world-leading economists, such as the Chicago Booth School IGM Panel, that lifting severe lockdowns too soon could risk reigniting second waves of the virus that would inflict still more financial pain on societies.
The point of shutting economies was to save lives. It also helped governments buy time to scale up their testing, tracing and isolating regimes, which have helped countries like Germany and South Korea isolate and tackle future clusters or outbreaks until a vaccine is developed.
But Hale says some countries, like the US, have squandered the time given to them. “Other governments haven’t used that time well, and I would say the United States is very much one that, at the federal level, has not had a coherent strategy.”
A failure to use the time wisely risks a spike in infections as lockdowns are lifted, and a subsequent nosedive in consumer confidence. People “would freak out” as they watch their peers get ill, leading them to “question their livelihoods and lifestyle,” Giancarlo Corsetti, a professor of macroeconomics at the University of Cambridge, told CNN,
Research conducted by Corsetti found there is no absolute trade-off between human health and the economy in developed countries, where the economic price of inaction in the pandemic could be twice as high as a lockdown.
“Now, would people carry on going to restaurants to bars, and then go visit their parents and kill them?” Robertson asked. “I would suspect that that you’d still have this combination of people altering their behavior and spending less and going out to restaurants less.”
Nor would there be much benefit for some economies to ease restrictions early while much of the rest of the world remained under lockdown, experts add. Robertson points to Sweden, which adopted a different strategy to other European nations during the pandemic – keeping most schools, restaurants, salons and bars open. It did, however, ask people to refrain from making long journeys, placing an emphasis on personal responsibility.
Despite its different path, Sweden’s economy is in the doldrums along the rest of its European counterparts, and it has more deaths per capita, over a seven-day rolling average, than its Nordic neighbors, according to Our World in Data, an independent statistics website headquartered at Oxford University.
But don’t entirely dismiss lockdown skepticism, especially when nations have used the deep freeze as a guise to grab more power. “I think the critique is very welcome because governments should be aware of the costs of these policies,” Hale said, explaining that laws rushed out after the 9/11 terrorist attacks have outlived the crisis they were meant to address.
There is a better argument against the efficacy of lockdowns in low-income countries, where citizens cannot rely on generous welfare provisions to compensate for the loss of livelihoods. Not everywhere will benefit from a stimulus check from the Internal Revenue Service or the sort of job retention schemes seen throughout Europe.
Rich, developed nations may well be able to afford extended shutterings, says Robertson. But low-income countries in South Asia, as well as Africa, cannot afford to rack up high debt, lose tax revenues and investments to its economy, he added.
The question, he said, is more pressing in countries where millions “badly need to have an economy that is working and growing.”