Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Saving Lives Saves Livelihoods

For rich countries, there was always only one right answer: Impose strict early lockdowns to crush the virus and enable a return to economic growth.

A child’s playground is closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Auckland, New Zealand, on March 4.
A child’s playground is closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Auckland, New Zealand, on March 4. Phil Walter/Getty Images

In early January this year, in the midst of a global pandemic, I was standing maskless at the stern of a diving boat off the coast of a Caribbean island, chatting with an environment department employee about her pandemic and lockdown experience on the island. “It was horrible for that month,” she said, “but since then, life has been pretty good.” She dived down to spear lionfish, an invasive species from the South Pacific that threatens coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean.

We were two strangers chatting, unconcerned about passing on the virus, because the island we were on completely crushed local transmission of COVID-19 by adopting a set of sensible policies. The lionfish, on the other hand, proved to be a more elusive and stubborn enemy. Lionfish arrived in Caribbean waters thanks to irresponsible Floridians in the 1980s that released their pet exotic fish into the waterways. COVID-19 also took a similar path into the Caribbean via a visiting passenger cruise ship. But this time, the island was prepared.

As told by locals, the lockdown was very strict and somewhat painful. After a passenger fell ill in March 2020 and spread COVID-19 to local residents, the island’s tourism-dependent economy made the brave decision to shut down the airport and all ports immediately. Only citizens were allowed to return on special repatriation flights, provided that they underwent a strict quarantine for 14 days in a government-approved and monitored facility, regardless of their test results.

In early January this year, in the midst of a global pandemic, I was standing maskless at the stern of a diving boat off the coast of a Caribbean island, chatting with an environment department employee about her pandemic and lockdown experience on the island. “It was horrible for that month,” she said, “but since then, life has been pretty good.” She dived down to spear lionfish, an invasive species from the South Pacific that threatens coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean.

We were two strangers chatting, unconcerned about passing on the virus, because the island we were on completely crushed local transmission of COVID-19 by adopting a set of sensible policies. The lionfish, on the other hand, proved to be a more elusive and stubborn enemy. Lionfish arrived in Caribbean waters thanks to irresponsible Floridians in the 1980s that released their pet exotic fish into the waterways. COVID-19 also took a similar path into the Caribbean via a visiting passenger cruise ship. But this time, the island was prepared.

As told by locals, the lockdown was very strict and somewhat painful. After a passenger fell ill in March 2020 and spread COVID-19 to local residents, the island’s tourism-dependent economy made the brave decision to shut down the airport and all ports immediately. Only citizens were allowed to return on special repatriation flights, provided that they underwent a strict quarantine for 14 days in a government-approved and monitored facility, regardless of their test results.

My family, which has roots on the island, experienced this quarantine procedure when we moved my elderly father to get him out of the coronavirus-afflicted United States. Public health personnel stationed at the airport greeted us in hazmat suits when we arrived. We were asked to sanitize our hands four to five times before we were even given a pen to fill out immigration forms. After rapid COVID-19 tests, we were escorted in a sanitized government vehicle to our government-inspected quarantine apartment. We were fitted with tracking bracelets that monitored us continuously for two weeks with the threat of steep fines and jail time for any transgressions.

We were fitted with tracking bracelets that monitored us continuously for two weeks with the threat of steep fines and jail time for any transgressions.

These stringent procedures worked. Average daily cases almost never exceeded five, and with local transmission virtually eliminated, life completely normalized by June 2020. That normalcy meant no masking requirements and no social distancing. It meant going to work, going out to restaurants as often as you please, and hosting gatherings with friends and family. The 14-day strict quarantine requirements remain in effect for any outsiders. The island has created its own bubble, like families and friends have been trying to do in the United States and United Kingdom. But its bubble encompasses the entire country.

To be sure, managing the pandemic may be easier on a tiny Caribbean island, but its successful coronavirus-response strategy is emblematic of the success experienced by much larger countries: New Zealand, Australia, and China among them. The key component of this strategy is simple to conceptualize but difficult to implement. First, impose a hard lockdown and eliminate local transmission of the virus. Once the virus is crushed, residents can enjoy maximum freedom, as long as you remain vigilant about any outsiders who could carry the virus back in. Australia and New Zealand could even join together in a larger super-bubble, as long as the countries can trust each other to remain functional with tight entry restrictions.

Under these conditions, even the Beijing Marathon or the Australian Open tennis tournament can be held at a time when U.S. and U.K. citizens don’t even feel comfortable visiting the neighborhood restaurant. Life can return to normal, but you do need to remain secluded from other irresponsible nations. The lockdown period requires some steep sacrifices, and basic needs of all residents must be addressed. Poorer countries where social safety nets are absent and a family’s day-to-day food security is dependent on a laborer’s earnings in the informal sector may not be able to implement that hard lockdown. But this approach is feasible for high-income nations.

This strategy of crushing the virus also obviates the need for the confused debate about “reopening the economy” that has characterized politics elsewhere. U.S. states like Texas and Florida that were among the earliest states to reopen had to backtrack by the end of June 2020 amid rising infection rates and at-capacity intensive care units. Bars and restaurants that prematurely opened had to be ordered shut. And that cycle continues even today; Texas recently rescinded a mask mandate and pronounced itself open—drawing accusations of “neanderthal thinking” from U.S. President Joe Biden.

The success of countries that crushed the curve shows that the “lives versus livelihoods” debate presents a false dichotomy.

The success of countries that crushed the curve shows that the “lives versus livelihoods” debate that was prominent early in the pandemic in many countries presents a false dichotomy. The best way to protect livelihoods in the longer term is to crush the virus first and only then reopen the economy.

Countries that have the systems in place to take care of citizens’ basic needs for a few weeks would actually minimize harm to livelihoods by taking the hard lockdown approach, crushing the virus, and saving lives in the process. In fact, New Zealand’s V-shaped economic recovery is a vindication of the COVID-19 elimination strategy the country has pursued.

By December 2020, New Zealand’s economy was already growing at 0.4 percent from a year earlier, defying projections of a 1.8 percent decline at the beginning of the pandemic. In contrast, the International Monetary Fund’s October 2020 projections suggest the U.K. economy shrank by 9.8 percent in 2020 while the U.S. economy shrank by 4.3 percent. China behaved irresponsibly early in the pandemic by minimizing the threat, but its subsequent hard lockdown allowed the economy to recover quickly. It was the only major economy to post positive growth (of 2.3 percent) in 2020.

Beyond macroeconomic indicators, the logic behind this strategy is supported by detailed microdata on consumer behavior during the pandemic, analyzed by economists. Rich people don’t feel comfortable going out when the virus is not under control, regardless of the lockdown policy in effect. Economists at the University of Chicago examined detailed consumer cellular traffic data at more than 2 million U.S. businesses and found that the 60 percent drop in visits was directly tied to fear of infection.

Traffic declined most in counties where the COVID-19 fatality rate was high, not where legal restrictions on movement were in place. The Opportunity Insights team at Harvard University found that if the rich don’t come out and spend money at bars or restaurants or hotels, the economy stagnates and poorer workers in the service industry suffer. The pandemic recession hit the poorest segments of the U.S. population the hardest.

A critical ingredient for this strategy is early decisiveness. This is related to a simple principle we knew from the start of this pandemic: When an infection has the potential to grow exponentially, containing it early becomes exponentially more valuable. This implies that it pays to overinvest in protective actions, overreact to the threat, and make large sacrifices even if they appear silly at the time given low infection numbers. There is an important asymmetry: Economic waste generated from overreaction pales in comparison to long-run losses to lives and livelihoods if you err by underreacting. Italy’s early experience with the pandemic provided tangible evidence of this.

The countries that heeded those warning signs flourished while others that ignored the Italian experience and repeated the same mistakes floundered. Even as the number of infections increased rapidly in the U.K. in mid-March 2020, the government dithered about locking down. Early decisive action must be followed up with a consistent strategy that it clearly communicated to all citizens. Leaders must inspire citizens to make sacrifices to protect one another. This is another area where many rich, powerful countries failed.

Not all countries are equally able to handle the sacrifices required to crush the virus, especially if they miss the boat and fail to catch it early. In April 2020, I argued in Foreign Policy that poor countries need to think twice about imposing social distancing in places where adequate social safety nets were not in place and lockdowns had the potential to cause widespread hunger. Early data showed that enforcing social distancing in rural Nepal or Bangladesh meant that day-wage laborers could not feed their families. We have now rigorously documented the economic hardship that ensued in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

But the optimal policy in countries that are better resourced is very different. The Cayman Islands’ government sends regular checks to service sector workers whose jobs were interrupted by the lockdown. With community support, a friend of mine who is the head chef at one of the oldest restaurants on the island repurposed his entire crew to prepare and deliver meals to low-income residents during the lockdown.

China—once it acknowledged the coronavirus—imposed an extreme lockdown on Wuhan, but it is vital to ensure that all residents who are forcibly kept indoors get adequate access to food and medical care. Like Australia and New Zealand, the United States in theory has the wealth to support all citizens temporarily if a strict lockdown was imposed. However, executing such a strategy requires a much stronger political will than politicians have demonstrated.

The economic cost imposed on the entire society of muddled, indecisive pandemic response policies is clearly evident in online Google Mobility data. The data tracks visits to retail establishments daily using millions of smartphones that have location tracking turned on. New Zealand experienced a much sharper drop in mobility for a month during its initial harsh lockdown in April 2020 compared to the United States.

Visits to retail establishments in New Zealand declined 90 percent that month relative to their pre-pandemic baseline (as opposed to only 40 percent in the United States), which means that New Zealanders followed lockdown guidelines in a more stringent manner than Americans did. That allowed retail visits in New Zealand to rebound to normalcy in September 2020 while the United States continues to experience a prolonged slump. U.S. retail establishment visits even in March this year continues to be 25 percent below the pre-pandemic normal.

For those who complain of freedom lost, countries that crushed the virus can offer a taste of what true freedom from a pandemic feels like.

While the prospect of protecting lives and livelihoods should be reason enough to make the sacrifices necessary to crush the virus and remain vigilant, these benefits may seem too abstract for the average citizen in Europe or North America who is concerned about his or her freedom to go about everyday life.

But for those who complain of freedom lost, countries that crushed the virus can offer a taste of what true freedom from a pandemic feels like. Back on the Caribbean island, people go out every day without having to worry about whether they remembered to bring their masks. They exchange hugs and kisses with family members and visit restaurants regularly. People support diving operators and rent equipment that goes into their mouths.

Locals go out and spend money, safe in the knowledge that everyone around them took some sensible decisions in the interest of collective health. My family and I enjoy the freedoms of a virus-free existence that I no longer take for granted because I normally live in the United States.

While New Zealanders led free and healthy lives through most of 2020, my fellow Americans and I were constrained—unable to live fully or work freely. Our individual freedoms were curtailed as a result of dithering politicians, delayed decisions, and people’s impatience that prioritized short-run reopening but constrained us even more in the long run.

That is the key lesson from this pandemic that we need to remember as new variants emerge or the next time a novel virus threatens humanity: Let’s not be shy about overreacting.

Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak is an economics professor at Yale University, where he directs the Yale Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale. Twitter: @mushfiq_econ

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