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People eat at tables outside a restaurant in London as England prepares to enter into a second coronavirus lockdown  (AFP)
People eat at tables outside a restaurant in London as England prepares to enter into a second coronavirus lockdown (AFP)

The dubious record of lockdowns against coronavirus

Some countries that took a light approach fared better and the evidence is scant that stringency was effective

As covid-19 cases begin to rise again in North America and Europe in a putative “second wave", and governments have already undertaken or are considering re-imposing tough lockdowns, some equally tough questions need to be asked. In the first wave earlier this spring, the policy response across countries was very different. Some locked down aggressively and early, while others imposed relatively light lockdowns somewhat later and were criticized for their slow response. Yet, across the board, cases are up—in Germany, which everyone agrees handled the first wave well, and also in the UK, which has been seen, along with the US, as a country with one of the poorest responses to the crisis. Meanwhile, India, which locked down early and aggressively—with some of the most draconian measures in the world—when cases were still low, has seen a surge in cases after the lockdown was lightened.

The question, therefore, has to be asked: Are lockdowns effective? While the lockdown approach managed to “flatten" the curve of new infections, and deaths, in some major Western countries, it failed to exterminate the virus, creating the possibility of a second wave rising from the residue of the first. But what is certain is that lockdowns had a big dampening effect on economic activity. As a rule of thumb, the more draconian and long-lasting the lockdown, the greater the loss in national income relative to a baseline of no lockdown.

In defence of lockdowns, some folks have latched on to a widely-circulated chart (bit.ly/3jKC2FQ) released by the Financial Times, which shows a robust correlation between loss in national income and cumulative deaths per million. In other words, countries which had more deaths per million also suffered a larger income loss. However, it would be premature to conclude that more stringent lockdowns resulted in lower mortality rates, which is contestable.

Ideally, what one would like is a chart that correlates income loss with lockdown stringency, but the difficulty is that more stringent lockdowns themselves contributed to a higher income loss, apart from their effect on combating the virus. In statistical jargon, the stringency of lockdown is “endogenous" to the loss in national income. Therefore, coming up with a clean causal story is exceptionally treacherous.

One country that may yet have the last laugh is Sweden. Widely criticized in mainstream commentary for its “light touch" approach during the initial outbreak in the spring, this Scandinavian country with its rich social democratic traditions became an unlikely hero for libertarians critical of the curtailment of civil liberties and individual choice evidently entailed by lockdowns.

Swedish policymakers, however, were not channelling their inner Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman, but rather common sense. They reasoned that avoiding a harsh lockdown in the first wave, and perhaps suffering a higher infection (and mortality) rate in the first instance, would forestall the need for a further lockdown after a putative re-opening once infections fell. Indeed, while other European countries are locking down again—creating the real possibility of social unrest in countries such as France, Italy, and Spain—Sweden does not face this conundrum, not having locked down in the first place.

The “Swedish model", as it has come to be known, is not without its deficiencies, however: Notably, it has a markedly higher mortality rate than its demographically similar neighbouring countries (although lower than some other countries in Europe which did lock down). While no one will perhaps admit it, accepting an initially higher mortality rate was presumably one of the implicit trade-offs involved in the Swedish “light touch" approach.

Among major countries, at least democracies, India’s situation seems worst of all. Having locked down hard when cases were low, India has reaped the double whirlwind of high infection and mortality rates and of an economy in free fall, having been crippled by its draconian lockdown. While policymakers will not concede this publicly, the current laissez faire approach is surely a response both to the failure of India’s initial lockdown and public fatigue after having endured some of the harshest curbs in any democratic country. Indeed, having failed to keep its powder dry in the spring, there is not much ammunition left for the government to deploy, if it intends a further lockdown, which seems most unlikely.

The harsh reality the world over is that policymakers do not really know what exactly to do, and they are perforce making decisions on the fly. The propagation mechanism of the virus is not fully understood, and there seems to be great variation in its range of symptoms, from very mild, similar to a garden-variety flu, to very severe, with high mortality risk. This makes it difficult to effect a truly science- and evidence-based public policy response. All policies, lockdown or otherwise, are ultimately a function of political decisions based on the judgement of those in charge. At the time of filing this, both France and Germany had reimposed harsh lockdowns. By the time you read this, other countries may have, too.

What is noteworthy, though, is just how great a curtailment of civil liberties citizens are apparently willing to endure when a public-safety emergency is invoked. Both autocratic and democratic leaders around the world have taken note, too.

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