The media have also been tripped up by several significant variables. For example, the pandemic arrived and surged at different times in different countries, and even within countries – as you would expect from any pandemic. During the first wave in 2020, some countries were praised for their strict lockdowns and low Covid mortality, but subsequent waves hit some of them so badly that they now have among the highest mortality numbers in the world.
Extreme Covid restrictions, such as those imposed by Australia, Hong Kong and New Zealand, certainly kept the virus at bay for a while. But that just postponed the inevitable. All countries have to work their way through the pandemic sooner or later.
Moreover, the focus on Covid cases, death counts and so on, ignores the collateral public-health damage from Covid restrictions. These have contributed to deaths from other diseases, and such deaths are just as tragic as Covid deaths. A basic public-health principle is that one should never focus on one single disease but consider public health as a whole. Even if the lockdowns reduced Covid mortality, for which there is scant evidence, one must also consider the harm that the lockdowns caused on other health conditions such as worsening cardiovascular-disease outcomes, missed cancer screening and treatment, lower childhood-vaccination rates, and deteriorating mental health.
In Western Europe, the Scandinavian countries had the lightest Covid restrictions while they tried to protect their older high-risk population. Sweden was heavily criticised for this by the international media. The Guardian, for instance, reported in 2020 that life in Sweden felt ‘surreal’, with ‘couples stroll[ing] arm in arm in the spring sunshine’. Many journalists, politicians and scientists expected that the lighter Scandinavian touch would lead to disaster. That did not happen. Sweden has among the lowest reported Covid mortality numbers in Europe. Of the European countries with more than one million people, Denmark (94), Finland (81), Norway (7), and Sweden (91) are four of only six countries with excess mortality less than 100 per 100,000 inhabitants, the other two being Ireland (12) and Switzerland (93).
What about the UK, with its more heavy-handed Covid restrictions? Compared to the Western European average of 140 excess deaths per 100,000, England had 126, Scotland 131, Wales 135, and Northern Ireland 132.
In the US, South Dakota imposed few Covid restrictions, while Florida tried to protect older people without too many restrictions on the general population. Did that result in the predicted disaster? No. Compared to the national average of 179 excess deaths per 100,000, Florida had 212 while South Dakota had 156.
The biggest weakness of excess-mortality statistics is that while they count Covid deaths, they do not fully capture the deaths, not to mention the collateral public-health damage, that come from Covid restrictions themselves. Missed cancer screenings and treatments do not lead to immediate deaths, but a woman who missed her cervical cancer screening may now die three or four years from now instead of living another 15 or 20 years. The mortality statistics do not reflect non-fatal collateral damage such as increasing mental-health problems or missed educational opportunities, either. Those harms need to be tallied and addressed in the years to come.
Politicians argued that the draconian lockdowns were needed to protect lives. From the excess-mortality data, we now know they were not. Instead, they have contributed to the enormous collateral damage that we will have to live with for many years to come. It is tragic.
In her classic book, The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman describes how nations sometimes pursue actions contrary to their interests. She starts with Troy and the Trojan horse and ends with the US and the Vietnam War. By ignoring basic, long-standing principles of public health during the pandemic, most nations marched down the path of folly together. The leaders of those nations will be fine, except for some early retirements. The devastation on children, the poor, the working class and the middle class, on the other hand, will take decades to repair.
We argue that the policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic by all levels of government around the world is not consistent with recommendations from standard welfare economics. Thus, it is important to ask why such policies have been adopted. That opens the door to examining the political economy of the COVID-19 pandemic. This requires examining the incentives and information that confront policymakers and voters and the institutional environments that shape their incentives and information. This lead article frames questions addressed in the remainder of the symposium.
Here’s a slice from the paper:
One of [Ronald] Coase’s fundamental contributions in the Problem of Social Cost (1960) was to illustrate the reciprocal nature of externalities.6 The activities of the young and healthy impose a negative health externality on the old and infirm. But it is equally true that if the activities of the young are restricted because of the presence of the old and infirm, this latter group has imposed a negative externality on the young and healthy. If transactions costs were low, the Coase theorem would dictate that it would not matter to which party the rights to activity or restriction were assigned, as bargaining would reach the efficient outcome. However, in the case of COVID-19, and large populations, it is quite clear that transactions costs of bargaining would be prohibitive. Thus, the standard law and economics approach would recommend assigning rights such that the least cost mitigator bears the burden of adjusting to the externality. In the case of COVID-19, it is clear that the low opportunity cost mitigators are the old and infirm. Thus, Coasean economics would recommend allowing the activities of the young and healthy to impose externalities on the old and infirm, not the other way around. Lockdowns and stay at home orders get the allocation of rights exactly backwards and result in large inefficiencies because costs are disproportionately borne by the high cost mitigators. However, a welfare economist would not stop the analysis at this point, because there remains a large externality causing an inefficient outcome. Standard welfare economics just does not recommend correcting the externality by locking down and issuing stay at home orders as governments around the world did in March and April 2020 and are doing again in the winter months.
In the short-term, therefore, politicians and public health officials were pursuing their own interests when they decided to lock down. They didn’t want to be punished by the voters for ‘not acting’, and recognised that the costs of lockdown would come later, by which time they’d be out of office – a textbook case of government failure.
A society grounded on “social distancing” is a contradiction—it’s a kind of anti-society. Consider what happened to us, consider the human goods we sacrificed to preserve bare life at all costs: friendships, holidays with family, work, visiting the sick and dying, worshipping God, burying the dead.
Susan Julians, writing in the BMJ, questions the wisdom of lockdowns. (HT Jay Bhattacharya) Here’s her wise conclusion:
If we [in Britain] had not locked down for as long in the first wave, chasing an impossible zero covid dream, I would suggest that our most vulnerable to covid would have been less affected by the increase of frailty, and some would not have suffered the torture of dying alone. For our children, an earlier return to school may have helped prevent the loss of 100,000 ghost children, the huge rise in mental and physical ill health (as seen in the control group of the CLoCk study) in addition to limiting learning loss.
The largest assumption, that Zero Covid was a valid strategy, at any point, needs to be thoroughly and forensically challenged.