To What Extent Are Covid-19 Lockdowns Worth The Pain?
The global COVID-19 outbreak began in December 2019 in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province, China. The pandemic has since spread to at least 188 countries or regions - it has changed the world as we know it, with over 26 million confirmed cases, and over 880,000 deaths due to the disease as of 01/09/2020. (John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 2020)
In response to this unprecedented crisis, governments around the world imposed stringent lockdowns to reduce the infection rate, save lives and protect healthcare systems from collapse. While lockdowns have been successful in achieving these goals, they have had many unintended damaging consequences, such as crippled economies and a disproportionate impact on young people in terms of their educational and employment prospects.
As economies around the world now reopen and adjust to the ‘new normal’, the impacts of lockdown on different groups and the entire economy become ever clearer. It is now important to evaluate whether the efforts of governments and citizens over the last few months have even been worth the significant damages done.
In this essay, I weigh up lockdown’s benefits of lives saved and protecting healthcare systems against the costs incurred, reaching the conclusion that despite these repercussions, lockdown has been worth the pain.
Lives Saved & the Protection of Healthcare Services:
The purpose of lockdown has been to reduce the infection rate of the coronavirus by limiting interaction between people from different households. This means that fewer people become seriously ill or die, so healthcare systems are protected from overburden and can treat all hospitalised patients.
Lockdown has been successful in reducing infection rates. Analysis by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) supports this conclusion. New Zealand imposed strict lockdown measures when their confirmed case numbers were still in single figures, e.g. restrictions on mass gatherings, closing schools and workplaces and telling citizens to stay home. The IMF analysis estimates that this early action likely reduced death count by over 90%, compared to if they had not imposed any containment measures. This suggests that the number of COVID-19 deaths in New Zealand could have been 10 times higher in the absence of containment measures, showing that lockdown has been effective in reducing the infection rate, hence saving lives.
Research by a team at Imperial College London also supports this conclusion. Their study, assessing restrictions in 11 European countries, estimated that measures like closing shops and telling people to stay at home prevented 3.2 million deaths by the 4th of May. This includes 470,000 deaths in the UK, 690,000 in France and 630,000 in Italy.
This huge suppression of infection rates also protected healthcare systems from being overburdened, as they had less patients to treat than they would otherwise have, meaning that they could treat each of these patients, hence saving more lives. The underuse of the UK’s NHS Nightingale hospital, built specifically to treat coronavirus patients, is evidence that lockdown has undeniably been successful in reducing infection rates, hence protecting healthcare systems, and saving lives.
The most significant damage caused by lockdown is the crippling of global economies. There are several reasons for this economic paralysis. When people stay at home instead of going out, their demand for in-store goods and services is heavily limited. This creates a feedback loop of economic decline, as with lower demand, the supply side of the economy requires fewer workers – many workers are hence laid off. These workers now no longer have a salary, thus don’t have disposable income to spend on goods and services. Now, people working in industries producing these goods and services are also laid off and the vicious cycle continues. Even those who have not lost jobs are more hesitant about spending money and more likely to save due to the uncertain future ahead, causing further job losses. This phenomenon is known as the paradox of thrift – the paradox states that an increase in autonomous saving induces a decrease in aggregate demand and thus a decrease in gross output which will in turn lower total saving. This embeds a vicious cycle that is difficult to halt.
Available data reinforces this conclusion – in April 2020, the UK economy shrunk by 20.4% from the previous month. This is the largest recorded monthly drop since monthly records began in 1997, more than triple the previous record fall in March of 5.8%, when lockdown began. In the first 3 months of 2020, Britain’s economy contracted by 2.2%, the largest quarterly fall since 1979. Unemployment in the UK is set to rise at the fastest pace in at least 50 years. Although the UK economy has experienced a ‘summer surge’ due to generous fiscal policies such as the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, coupled with the easing of lockdown measures, the Bank of England predicts that this recovery will soon slow. The World Bank June 2020 Global Economic Prospects predicts a baseline contraction in global GDP of 5.2% in 2020. In the US, unemployment reached an all-time high in April of 14.7% The US economy is projected to shrink by 8% in 2020 according to the IMF.
Certain industries have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic; the introduction of social distancing and heavily reduced air travel has brought the travel and tourism industry to its knees. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that over 100 million jobs (HospitalityNet, 2020) in the industry are at risk worldwide, 63.4 million of these in Asia Pacific and 13 million in Europe.
The unemployment and economic damage will hit young people particularly hard. The sectors hit hardest by lockdown like arts, hospitality, and travel and tourism largely employ young people, meaning that it is overwhelmingly young people who lose jobs. According to McKinsey, employees between the ages of 15 and 24 are almost twice as likely to have jobs at risk than those aged between 25 and 54 (Klier, et al., 2020). Many of these jobs will not return – according to the World Economic Forum, it is possible that 2 in 5 jobs lost due to COVID-19 will not come back . As many young people take up these low-paying jobs as their first jobs, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that sharp contractions in these sectors will make it difficult for young people to make their first step onto the career ladder, in turn making it harder for them to get into higher-paying jobs (Dias, et al., 2020). In Britain, 9% of 18-24 year olds have lost their jobs – this is the highest percentage out of all age groups. A further quarter have been furloughed, but it is likely that many on furlough will also lose their jobs when the government’s furlough scheme ends in October.
Developing countries are projected to suffer most from the COVID-19 outbreak. These economies often depend on remittances. According to the United Nations, developing countries received a total of $529 billion in remittances in 2018. According to the World Bank, remittances to low and middle-income countries (LMICS) are projected to fall by 19.7% . With many of these breadwinners losing their jobs, their families have lost, or may soon lose, their only source of income. This will have hugely damaging effects on these families – there is evidence that remittances improve nutrition, lead to higher spending on education and reduce child labour in vulnerable households.
Developing countries also do not often have diversified economies. Many developing countries are highly dependent on tourism – tourism contributed 8.5% of the African continent’s GDP from 2011-2014. Within Africa, the sector made up 62% of Seychelles’ GDP, 43% of Cabo Verde’s and 27% of Mauritius’. Many developing countries are also heavily dependent on commodities, the clearest example of this being oil. Lockdown has caused industrial production and transportation to slump, reducing demand for these commodities. This has caused sharp drops in the prices of these commodities. In April this year, US oil prices turned negative for the first time in history as demand plummeted. While the US is not a developing country, this unprecedented event represents a global trend of commodity prices falling due to reduced demand.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in the developing world has only just taken off, so we may see these impacts manifest themselves over the coming months and years. As developing countries tend to have lower standards of hygiene and are often riddled with much more governmental corruption than Western nations, the impact of the virus could be even more dire. In response to this potential crisis, over 100 developing countries have appealed to the IMF for emergency aid but inevitably this assistance will have limited benefit. The limited resources that the IMF must split between over 100 countries is simply not enough to prevent or mitigate the economic damage caused by lockdown.
Given these dire economic costs, many argue that lockdown has not been worth the pain. The range of sources that I have used all corroborate the same message of the crippling effects that lockdown has on the economy – unemployment, widening inequality, crippled economies, and disproportionate damage to young people’s lives. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, said that grandparents like him shouldn’t ‘sacrifice the country’. Despite these huge costs, however, lockdown has been worth the pain. Neuroscientist and author Abhijit Naskar summed up this trade-off succinctly in one of his blogs, saying that “You can revive an economy, but not a corpse” . The costs of lockdown, while huge, are far outweighed by the value of the millions of lives that would have otherwise been lost. As a society, we have a duty to care for people of all ages – even if it is mostly the elderly, who have already lived much of their lives, being saved, it would be morally abhorrent to let them die. Furthermore, it is likely that economies would have been hit hard by the virus, even in the absence of lockdown. As long as the pandemic spreads, there is little investor confidence; furthermore, people would still be more cautious of going out, and likely to save more money, hence economic damage was inevitable. The trade-off here is between a marginally worse economy and millions of lives being saved; it is very clear which outcome we should support.
Furthermore, there is reason to be optimistic. To alleviate the worst effects of lockdown, governments around the world have made unprecedented fiscal interventions - interest rates have been slashed to stimulate borrowing, reviving economies. In mid-March, when lockdown was first introduced in the UK, the Bank of England cut interest rates down to their lowest ever level of 0.1%. The UK government has taken other steps of fiscal intervention to support businesses throughout this pandemic. When lockdown began in the UK, Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced 2 key policies to keep businesses afloat – the flexible furlough scheme has given companies money to furlough their employees during the pandemic, who will then return to work as the pandemic eases down. The scheme is estimated to have saved over 9.3 million jobs . The other intervention was the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS), giving interest-free loans to small businesses. The US government spent $2 trillion on a stimulus package, part of which gave citizens cheques worth up to $1200, another example of direct demand-side fiscal policy used by governments to stimulate economies. While these interventions have not stopped the grave economic repercussions of lockdown, they have certainly gone a long way to cushion the blow.
Impact on Education
When COVID-19 surged in March and April, governments shut schools in conjunction with other policies that locked down economies. Over 90% of pupils worldwide were shut out of schools. Kenya’s government scrapped the entire school year, meaning that their children will return to school in January at the earliest. Rodrigo Duterte, President of Philippines, said that he might not let any children return to school until a coronavirus vaccine is developed. The evidence, however, suggests that closing schools does not help much in saving people from the virus. Some figures show that children under the age of 10 are 1000 times less likely to die than someone between 70-79 years of age. In fact, the measure does not even do much to reduce the spread of the virus – some studies suggest that under 18s are between one third to a half less likely to catch the virus than adults. They are also not ‘super spreaders’ of the virus – staff in Swedish nurseries and primary schools were no more likely to contract the virus than those working any other jobs .
While COVID-19 has not had a huge impact on most young peoples’ physical health, it has had and will continue to have large effects on their education and future economic prospects. Children around the world have missed out on vital months of school, many of whom will continue to miss more school over the coming months. This has hugely impacted their learning, increased educational inequality, and increased the risk of a ‘lost generation’.
The closure of schools, a result of lockdown, has severely damaged children’s learning for many months. Online learning is inherently worse than physical school – it is constrained by factors like worse discipline, poor internet connection and challenges in carrying out practical work. These factors, intrinsic to virtual learning, mean that children are now learning far less than they normally would. According to one estimate, eight-year olds who completely stopped learning due to lockdown could lose almost one year’s maths by autumn. as they struggle to learn more material, and forget some material that they learnt before lockdown. French-speaking students in Belgium in 1990 who were affected by a 2-month teachers’ strike were more likely to have to repeat a grade, and less likely to complete higher education than their Flemish-speaking counterparts. Some studies estimate that over the 2-month summer break, young children in America lose between 20% and 50% of the knowledge that they learnt during the school year. Most children have missed far more than 2 months of school, meaning these same impacts of reduced school completion rates, increased failure rates and lower knowledge retention could occur on a far greater scale.
Closing schools also widens a gap in educational inequality, as some students are better able to keep up with learning during lockdown than others. Poor children are less likely to have good Wi-Fi for online learning – out of the poorest quarter of American children, 25% of these lack access to a computer at home. A total of 465 million children worldwide being offered online lessons are unable to utilise them effectively because they lack internet. Poor children are also less likely to have educated parents who ensure that they keep on top of schoolwork, can give them help with homework, or pay for private tuition. In Britain, over 50% of pupils in independent schools took part in daily online lessons from the time schools closed in March until the summer holidays. This figure is in stark contrast with only 1/5th of state school pupils taking part in daily lessons. Lockdown could also result in children in the developing world being pulled out of school – in parts of Africa and South Asia, families have had their lives so heavily damaged that they need their kids to work or get married. As schools stay closed for longer, it is likely that more children will leave school. The charity Save the Children estimates that this figure could be close to 10 million, most of whom are girls. While everyone’s education has suffered due to the closure of schools, it is those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have lost out the most.
Young people losing out in their education will invariably be bad for the economy – The World Bank estimates that 5 months of school closures will in total cut $10 trillion (in today’s money) in lifetime earnings for the children affected; this is equivalent to 7% of current annual GDP. According to an estimate by Statistics Norway, school shutdowns in Norway cost $173 per child per day, as children will earn less in the future due to educational disruptions. The educational inequality widened by the shutting of schools will lower social mobility, as disadvantaged children now fall even further behind in their education, making it harder for them to access universities and high paying jobs.
In the context of education, lockdown has certainly not been worth the pain. Closing schools does not contribute much to limiting the spread of coronavirus or to reducing deaths, as children are at very low risk of dying from the virus and are less likely than adults to catch or spread it. Meanwhile, the costs of school closures are huge – children’s learning is held back, educational inequality increases and it is likely that more children drop out of school – all of this will have huge impacts on future prosperity, as well as widening socioeconomic inequality.
In conclusion, lockdown has been worth the pain, but only to a very marginal extent. While it has protected healthcare systems from collapse and saved perhaps millions of lives, it has also caused immense suffering – severe damage to the economy, disproportionate harm to young people and shutting children out from schools. However, as we are yet to feel the full force of the impacts of lockdown, this judgement is quite difficult to fully assess, as we do not yet fully know the longevity or severity of these impacts. It also depends on who you are in assessing whether lockdown has been worth the pain; an old person whose live was perhaps saved by lockdown would be far more likely to agree that it was worth the pain than a young hospitality industry worker who lost their job due to lockdown.
The closure of schools has not been worth the pain - it has hindered children’s learning, widened educational inequality and will result in more children dropping out of school; meanwhile, it has not actually played a huge role in limiting transmission of the virus. The other impacts of lockdown, however, were likely to happen even in the absence of a lockdown. The economy would have still suffered if the virus ran its course, hence economic damage and unemployment were inevitable; lockdown has simply exacerbated these impacts. This means that the trade-off here is marginal, not absolute – it is a trade-off between a marginally worse economy and the loss of millions of lives. We have a duty to look after all members of society, thus it is clear that we should prefer a world in which millions of lives are saved than a world in which the economy is slightly less bad.