One of the most persuasive arguments for ending the lockdown is that prolonging it will lead to a greater loss of life in the long run – the cure will end up being worse than the disease, to paraphrase Donald Trump. Why? Because a prolonged lockdown will lead to a massive economic contraction and that will have a negative impact on public health.

The COVID-19 Recession

Kenneth Rogoff, the Harvard economist, thinks the “economic catastrophe” caused by locking people down is “likely to rival or exceed that of any recession in the last 150 years”, potentially leading to a “global depression”.


Recent research suggests that we are already pushing a fifth of small businesses into bankruptcy, many of which will have taken a lifetime of honest toil to build. The proportion is forecast to rise to a third after three months of lockdown. Jonathan Sumption, Sunday Times, April 5th 2020


Economic Crash

This argument has been set out by Philip Thomas, a professor of risk management at Bristol University, who calculates that an economic contraction of more than 6.4% in GDP per head in the UK over the next two years will result in more years of life lost than abandoning the lockdown. And a contraction of at least that size seems overwhelmingly likely, with the OECD predicting the UK economy will shrink by 25% over the next two years if the lockdown is prolonged for 18 months. “I’m worried that in order to solve one problem we’d create a bigger problem,” says Professor Thomas.


Needless to say, Thomas’s analysis has been vigorously challenged, with some economists disputing that downturns cause an overall loss of life. (Curiously, the people challenging Professor Thomas’s research are often the very same people who claim that “austerity” killed 130,000 people.) Read here.

Rise in ill-health

While it’s true that the years 2007-09 saw a rise in suicide rates in the US and Europe, and economic slumps generally coincide with a rise in ill-health, domestic abuse and violent crime, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a rise in mortality. For instance, during the eurozone debt crisis Greece’s economy shrank by 30%, with a corresponding rise in suicides, as well as a rise in mortality for older people. But overall mortality continued to decline and even began to decline more rapidly for Greeks aged 20-34. There’s also evidence that the Great Depression didn’t have a negative effect on mortality in the US. One academic paper summarised the evidence as follows:

Evidence from high-income countries indicates that the association between economic growth and overall mortality is pro-cyclical, whereby mortality decreases during economic recession. This decrease in mortality is observed despite known negative health consequences of unemployment, declines in self-reported health and mental health, and increased suicide rates during recessions.

‘Effect of economic recession and impact of health and social protection expenditures on adult mortality: a longitudinal analysis of 5565 Brazilian municipalities’, Thomas Hone et al, The Lancet, November 2019


However, the same paper found that recessions do coincide with a rise in mortality in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs). In addition, a 2009 paper found that unemployment has a negative impact on mortality, with workers laid off en masse due to factory closures and the like seeing a reduction in life expectancy of 1 to 1.5 years. See pdf end of post.

Lockdown do more harm than good

Even supposing this calculation could be made with some confidence, and it showed that the lockdown will “do more harm than good”, in the words of Professor Thomas, the difficulty for the Government is that the electorate would place a higher value on the lives lost as a result of ending the lockdown (assuming it did result in more people dying from COVID-19) than the lives saved as a result of avoiding a deep recession.

As one Cabinet minister told the Sunday Times on April 12th: “Real deaths happening now are more politically powerful than projections from a model.” The lost lives would be visible, whereas the saved lives would be invisible. And the converse doesn’t apply. Suppose the Government keeps the lockdown in place and, in 18 months’ time, mortality from non-COVID-19 deaths starts to rise. The electorate probably wouldn’t value those lost lives more highly than the lives saved as a result of maintaining the lockdown.

Does that mean it’s politically naive to expect the Government to dial back extreme social distancing measures any time soon? Not necessarily. As the lockdown continues, the public will inevitably begin to tire of it and there may come a point when it no longer considers preventing the spread of the virus a price worth paying, particularly if we’re no closer to developing a vaccine. It’s also possible that once the peak has been flattened the public will stop observing extreme social distancing measures, believing the danger has passed. Absent public consent, it will be hard to keep the lockdown in place.

One final consideration: If the daily death toll begins to climb steeply after restrictions are lifted, that might deter people from returning to work, thereby negating the point of ending the lockdown. The Government could incentivise people to go back to work, e.g. stop paying them 80% of their wages if they’re not working, but that, too, would be politically risky.

 

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