DOMINIC LAWSON: No, the coronavirus lockdown cure ISN’T worse than the disease – and here’s why
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The Government’s decision to extend the lockdown for a further three weeks has, unsurprisingly, intensified the complaint that ‘shutting down the economy will cost more lives than the coronavirus’ — or, in the words of President Trump, that the ‘cure may be worse than the disease’.
The argument, in essence, is this: recessions kill. Intuitively, that seems obvious. Yet all the peer-reviewed studies of this matter, over decades, suggest the opposite: that economic slowdowns lead to marginal improvements in life expectancy.
Thus the German think tank, IZA World of Labour, reported that ‘while recessions lead to an increase in suicides, it has been proven that they reduce mortality rates’.
US President Donald Trump holds swabs as he delivers remarks on the coronavirus pandemic during a task force news conference
Another group of European health researchers published a paper last year which stated that although in the long run there is a positive association between economic growth and life expectancy, ‘recessions are generally associated with periods of faster life expectancy rise’.
It revealed that in the post-credit crunch recession a decade earlier, ‘results show that the countries and regions with the largest economic slowdown were also those with the largest strengthening of the declining mortality trend’.
This was true of desperately depressed Greece. A study published by three Greek researchers in the medical journal The Lancet showed declining mortality rates even among men between the ages of 20 and 34 — the gender and age group most likely to commit suicide.
This is why, last week, the Nobel Prizewinning economist Sir Angus Deaton observed: ‘Many papers, many places, many times find that all-cause mortality falls in recessions.’ The reasons are not hard to fathom.
While suicides rise, it is a very small category within the total. Much smaller than, for example, deaths on the roads (reduced when people drive less), workrelated accidents and respiratory illnesses — which are eased when local pollution levels decline.
This may be the single biggest benefit of the lockdown — aside, of course, from its intended purpose of reducing infections, and therefore deaths, from Covid-19. Across the globe, there has been a precipitous drop in detected levels of nitrogen dioxide.
This is not a greenhouse gas, like CO2, but is the noxious and deadly by-product most particularly of diesel engines (which is why it was so crazy of the last Labour government to encourage us, through fiscal measures, to switch from petrol to diesel cars ‘to save the planet’).
Nobel Laureate in economics Sir Angus Deaton speaks during the 2015 Nobel Banquet at Stockholm City Hall
But if the lockdown, across the world, has had a remarkable and beneficial effect on urban air quality, there are also clear consequences of keeping people confined in a form of house arrest which might increase mortality. The aspect most often mentioned is domestic violence: bluntly, an increase of murders in the home.
So far, no figures have been released that demonstrate such a rise in fatal domestic violence — and the Government has made clear that, for all its ‘stay at home’ propaganda, no one is obliged to remain where they are if their domestic situation has become unbearable.
Easy to say, I know. But in general, violent crime has fallen by up to 40 per cent as a result of the draconian movement restrictions imposed to fight the virus. For example, the West Midlands police force, one of the country’s biggest, has reported a 41 per cent drop in serious violence in March, and a 39 per cent drop in knife crime, compared with the same month last year.
Perhaps the most powerful health-based criticism of the lockdown emerges from the extraordinary figures from Accident and Emergency departments, which are of unprecedented drops in attendance. This is not just a matter of malingerers no longer bothering with the service (a good thing).
As former Cabinet Office chief economist Jonathan Portes recently pointed out, it is among the long-term unemployed that the most malign health effects of poverty are seen
There has also been an unexpected fall in those reporting symptoms of stroke or heart attack, which is a genuinely perplexing development. There are two possible reasons for this, or perhaps it is a mixture of both.
It could be caused by the force of the Government’s endlessly repeated injunction not to leave home, so that many people, even fearing that their health is at great risk from a non-virusrelated condition, don’t want to be seen to be breaking the rules.
But it seems at least as likely to me that the public are so scared of contracting the virus if they go to a hospital that they prefer to take their chances at home. This raises a second point in favour of continuing with the present lockdown policy at least for the next three weeks.
It will only be when the daily mortality rate from the virus is much lower than the almost 600 reported yesterday — even if that is the most encouraging figure for a fortnight — that many of those in medical difficulties from pre-existing conditions will feel confident enough to venture out and into a hospital.
And, in terms of the NHS’s own activities, it is when the rate of serious infection with the virus is significantly reduced that the ambulance capacity for transporting those with other lifethreatening conditions will be at levels we would normally regard as acceptable.
An empty M4 motorway in Bristol on Easter Monday as people stayed home during the coronavirus lockdown
By the way (not that it should need mentioning), Covid-19 is a particularly unpleasant way to die. As one recently widowed woman (‘Hannah’, who was allowed to be with her 75-year-old husband in hospital during his last moments), said in an interview: ‘It is not a nice quiet way to go. It is not a gentle death.’
This needs to be borne in mind when weighing deaths from the virus versus possible future deaths allegedly caused by the economic effects of the lockdown. Not that I am an enthusiast for recessions.
Loss of businesses, loss of livelihoods, loss of opportunities: these are bad things. But there is all the difference in the world between a depression lasting for many years (though actually U.S. life expectancy rose even in the Great Depression of the 1930s) and a temporary sharp loss of output, followed by an equally sharp recovery.
In the latter case, which is the official forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility, for what it’s worth, there is no permanent damage to people’s prospects. As the former Cabinet Office chief economist Jonathan Portes recently pointed out, it is among the long-term unemployed and in geographical areas of profound deprivation that the most malign health effects of poverty are seen.
This is a feature even within national economies which in aggregate are growing, as we know from our own country, and especially the burnt-out former industrial heartlands of the otherwise thriving U.S.
But if the economic health of businesses is the overriding concern, it is essential that the ending of the lockdown is accompanied by a justifiable confidence on the part of consumers that it is safe to go out and return to something like normal life.
That will not happen with the current level of daily deaths, even though those dire figures are the outcome of earlier infections, before the lockdown stamped on the virus transmission rate. Sad to say, ‘normal’ will not be what it was for some time to come.
Until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available and effective (which is by no means guaranteed) there will be a need for widespread ‘social distancing’ even after this lockdown is eased.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde is pictured during a trip to Iran
Sweden is the great exception to the compulsory ‘stay at home’ policies practised throughout the rest of Europe. But not only is Sweden’s death rate from Covid-19 a multiple of that of all its Scandinavian neighbours (though notably lower than ours), its own economy is taking a fearful battering.
Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, said last Friday that the idea that life goes on as normal in her country ‘is a myth… many people stay at home and have stopped travelling. Many businesses are collapsing. Unemployment is expected to rise dramatically.’
In other words, there is no perfect solution. But let’s not make things worse by propagating the idea that a decline in economic activity is more deadly than Covid-19. It absolutely isn’t.
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