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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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,
“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.
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.”