Here’s Why Most Economists Continue to Support Lockdown
Australian economists advocate suppression, eradication measures, and tightening controls when pandemic threatens
With the possibility of a longer lockdown hanging over Sydney, John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland, says in The Conversation with Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW, that the notion of "living with the virus" has resurrected.
At a news conference on Wednesday, NSW's health minister, Brad Hazzard, discussed the possibility of lifting the lockdown and recognising that "the virus has a life that will persist in the community." Although NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have both rejected the proposal, it has been promoted by many in the media.
Much of the debate over the Sydney epidemic has been portrayed as a battle between health and the economy, as it has been with pandemic policies in general. Epidemiologists and public health professionals are viewed as champions for saving lives, whereas economists are seen as advocates for saving money in this framework.
In truth, the vast majority of Australian economists advocate strong suppression or eradication measures, which include keeping case numbers as low as possible and tightening controls when an epidemic threatens.
The wide consensus, like that of epidemiologists, covers a variety of viewpoints on the proper reaction in each given situation. Some economists and epidemiologists backed the NSW government's decision to postpone the lockdown, while others wanted it to happen sooner. However, just a small percentage of people in both groups accept the notion of lifting limitations and waiting for herd immunity to protect us.
Unfortunately, many media sites thrive on controversy, as we have seen in the case of climate change. A dispute between a pro-lockdown public health specialist and an anti-lockdown economist is more entertaining than a detailed discussion about the best approach to suppress the virus, taking into account findings from a variety of disciplines.
Why have economists embraced the suppression strategy with greater enthusiasm than politicians and business leaders, for example?
1. Understanding exponential growth
For starters, economists are familiar with the idea of exponential growth.
While the importance of growth in economics is debatable, its centrality to economic ideas means that similar concepts from epidemiology, such as the reproduction number (R), are readily understood.
The argument that lockdowns are "disproportionate responses to a handful of incidents," as The Australian editorialised, loses its appeal if you grasp how quickly exponential processes may expand. The Conversation polled economists in May 2020 (after the conclusion of the national lockdown) and found that a significant majority favoured severe social distancing measures to maintain R below 1. Alternative methods, according to the majority of respondents who disagreed, might keep R below 1 at a lesser cost. Only a few people were in favour of letting it all hang out.
2. Considering counterfactuals
Second, economists are familiar with counterfactuals, or the requirement to describe what would have occurred if a different policy had been implemented.
It is simple to demonstrate that lockdowns are both financially and psychologically expensive. The counterfactual, on the other hand, is not a scenario in which the economy is unaffected and everyone is content. It's stressful to live in terror of the virus and to see relatives and friends suffer and die from it.
In terms of financial expenses, the efforts people take to limit their risk exposure, as well as the necessity to deploy medical resources to treat the sick, are both costly.
3. Considering trade-offs
Thirdly, and most significantly, economists are familiar with trade-offs. Within the realm of policy options, there are always trade-offs. Should we lockdown at the first hint of an epidemic and incur needless expenditures, or should we wait and risk a lengthier, more severe lockdown? Should we spend the money on purpose-built quarantine facilities or risk more leakage by using hotel quarantine?
Economists also recognise that not all decisions are free of trade-offs. On all relevant metrics, one policy may be unmistakably worse than another. While there are always trade-offs in policy, it is frequently the case that one living alternative outweighs the other in all relevant aspects.
As countries like Sweden discovered, there was no trade-off when it came to the key matter of suppression vs herd immunity.
One conclusion is substantially supported by the data. Allowing the virus to spread unchecked would have caused far more economic harm than brief lockdowns, as well as thousands of needless deaths and tens of thousands of people suffering from severe, perhaps long-term sickness.
4. Uncertainty and risk
Finally, economists are familiar with the intricacies of risk and uncertainty. One implication is the advantage of diversity by "backing every horse in the race," rather than "placing all your eggs in one basket," or even a few.
The federal government's vaccination strategy was highly reliant on a small number of alternatives, principally AstraZeneca and the University of Queensland's vaccine venture, both of which failed. We would be in a lot better position now if we had followed the logic of diversification.
The field of economics does not have all of the answers. Economists are the experts on this. Dealing with the epidemic need knowledge from a variety of fields. However, stereotypes that set one occupation against another are ineffective.