IO – Not long after the Covid-19 virus spread uncontrollably in the city of Wuhan last January 2020, it quickly became apparent the virus had made its way throughout large parts of the world. Some countries, such as Ecuador and Italy, were hit harder than others, while others–like New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam–took swift action with lockdowns and border closures in a bid to contain the spread. In fairly short order, pretty much the entire world came to a halt.
Now, more than a year later, a second wave is upon us and numerous countries are going back into lockdowns. Some countries are implementing stringent lockdowns with early curfews and closure of non-essential businesses, others with less stringent measures being taken. Yet what is for sure is this: the second round of lockdowns is going to cost the global economy trillions of dollars in terms of losses in economic output and stimulus expenditures.
As countless numbers of companies and small business owners have already gone bankrupt, it is hard to fathom how many more people are going to suffer the economic consequences of the pandemic. The fact vaccines are being produced offers only a small amount of solace: by the time sufficient vaccines are produced, distributed and administered for herd immunity to be reached, many economies will be in dire shape and, for those the hardest hit, there will undoubtedly be political repercussions, as well.
This raises a really important question: are the lockdowns really a good idea, or is it a big mistake?
Some very thoughtful people think it is, in fact, a big mistake. Consider this fact: last March, after the WHO recommended lockdowns, 170 countries closed their borders and 140 countries put in place containment measures such as border closures and restrictions on social gatherings. At the time, there were 8.8 million Covid-19 related cases and 43,000 deaths. Experts forecast that the lockdowns would result in a terminal level of roughly 10 times the then-current number of cases and deaths. Yet the reality is that during an intense period of intense lockdowns and controls, cases have multiplied by a factor of 40 times and deaths are 24 times higher. Some epidemiologists are saying this data proves the lockdowns were not a success, but rather a failure.
Or consider this: before the pandemic erupted in 2020, the WHO produced a report with recommendations on how governments could mitigate the impact of endemic and pandemic influenza. In that report the word “lockdown” does not even appear once, and it only advocated the use of masks for symptomatic individuals. Even more interesting is the fact that the WHO conducted randomized control trials and found that personal protective measures had a small effect on influenza transmissions. Despite this, once the pandemic arrived, everybody opted for lockdowns and the use of personal protective equipment.
Of course this is not to say that lockdowns don’t slow the spread of Covid-19. To some extent they have, and by doing so they keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and running out of bed space for seriously ill Covid-19 patients.
At the same time, however, it does suggest that lockdowns are not as effective as we think they are. In one study on deadly influenzas, researchers compare the 1957-1958 influenza pandemic with the current pandemic. During the so-called Asia flu pandemic of 1957, practically no governments ordered lockdowns or mandated the use of protective gear. This was the case in the USA, as well, and it was reported after the pandemic that there was an average morbidity rate during the pandemic that was 36 percent higher than during normal times. This is compared to the Covid-19 pandemic, where intense measures have been taken, and the excess morbidity rate is around 18 percent.
In other words, lockdowns may have halved the number of potential deaths. That is the good news. At the same time, one can’t help but weigh that against the tremendous economic costs associated with lockdowns.
But raising that issue brings into the picture some serious moral considerations. Should we put a price on an individual’s life and, if we do, what is the worth of a life? Such questions are extremely discomfitting, and most politicians prefer not to raise them and instead opt to err on the side of caution. This is understandable, but one can only wonder if the world would have been better off if there were no lockdowns.