Economy vs Public Health: The Debate Over Lockdown

Deciding to prioritise public health or the economy has quickly become one of the biggest points of contention…

Deciding to prioritise public health or the economy has quickly become one of the biggest points of contention during the pandemic. It has placed policymakers on opposing ends as they decide on the most appropriate steps to easing lockdown and social distancing measures. However, this argument isn’t as simple as one taking precedence over the other. Without a thriving economy, public health would suffer. But the economy can only continue to thrive if the individuals contributing to it are safe and healthy. An economy refers to how overall production and consumption determine the allocation of scarce resources. The production of goods and services are required to meet the needs of those who live and operate within a nation. Factors such as employment, education and business operations influence economic performance. Another key factor is public health. Public health services aim to protect and improve the health of the general public. They work towards the detection, prevention (through research) and response to infectious diseases. Funding and the availability of resources in relation to those who require medical attention plays a big part in those services being carried out successfully.  

This debate can’t be reduced to a binary of economy versus health which wrongly assumes that valuing money is to do so over the safety of others. Of course, we don’t want to go back to the peak death numbers experienced earlier this year but it is impractical for the economy to be at a standstill long-term. What this frame often fails to acknowledge is the negative impact these measures have, especially on underprivileged populations. The discourse of ‘shared sacrifice’ is ignorant of income as well as job function and how they’re linked to the ability to self-isolate. In the UK, 16-24 year olds have seen the biggest rise in unemployment – up 76,000 individuals compared to last year. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this is due to young people working in sectors which have been particularly hard-hit by lockdown restrictions. To counter unemployment, measures like the furlough scheme have been put in place. However, this is now being pulled back and employers are expected to pay a bigger proportion of wages. October, the end of the scheme, is also drawing near. With restrictions being reintroduced, a once again inactive economy will force many more businesses to cut staff if they can’t afford to start paying them. The outlook for small businesses in the US also appears bleak. McKinsey surveyed several small businesses and their analysis showed (without accounting for intervention) that 25 to 36 percent might have to close permanently due to the disruption caused in just the first few months of the pandemic. Prior to the crisis, almost half of all private-sector jobs in the US were accounted for by small businesses. Widespread closures risk economic damage and long-lasting unemployment. We can’t ignore how a growing population out of work leads to greater repercussions for society and public wellbeing. Policymaking should encourage business enterprise. Great disruption has also been prevalent in education systems with 94 percent of the global student population impacted by school and learning space closures. Lost time in education has broadened the disparities that existed pre-crisis by limiting opportunities for the most vulnerable. This includes those living in poor neighbourhoods, girls, refugees and persons with disabilities. Similarly, the impact of closures can be seen beyond education. They’ve hampered the provision of essentials like childcare which enables parents to work and access to nutritious food. Functioning education systems are fundamental to the prosperity and productivity of all economies, which again, is in the best interests of public health and wellbeing. The safe reopening of institutions positions nations to effectively tackle the crisis in future. 

That being said, reactionary decision making isn’t good policy either. It’s over optimistic to deduce that just by lifting lockdown, the economy would go back to what it was before the pandemic. Looking at economic performance in relation to the removal of current measures is a better approach. Should the number of infections begin rising (as we’re already starting to see in the UK), significant parts of economic activity would once again come to a halt. Of course, ending lockdown and government support forces people back into work. Performance might even improve as a result. But the inequalities between those who can work from home and those who can’t are only reinforced. Additionally, with the disease still prevalent, easing restrictions too soon would unlikely have the desired effect of reviving the economy. It risks another wave of infections or worse, a cycle of lockdowns and reopenings that would completely destabilise the economy.  The influential Imperial College London paper detailed strategies for ‘mitigation’ and ‘suppression’. It highlighted four main costs: economic downturn (from social distancing), loss of lives, medical costs and lost working days from sickness. It concluded that ‘suppression’ would result in fewer costs with lower death rates and reduced pressure on public health services. Controlling the spread of the disease within the population would also lower the economic costs long-term. Providing the efficiency of testing and tracing is improved, and the rising number of new cases are well-managed, activity can resume without the risk of more shutdowns. This will be difficult if the disease is still rampant and heading towards a second wave. Systems put in place to significantly lower the level of disease are therefore vital. Extended periods of lockdown are perhaps a better alternative to the consequences of a premature lockdown. 

When it comes to the debate over public health and the economy, thinking that making steps towards the recovery of one is somehow out of less concern for the other is myopic and it oversimplifies far more complex issues. Focussing on actions which solely aim to boost economic activity without taking into account the risk on public health isn’t helpful. Although there’s also the issue of the viability of extended periods of lockdown and at what point it would be appropriate to fully ease measures. Realistically, we can’t wait for the number of infections to reach zero in order for that to happen. As Chief Financial Times Economics Commentator, Martin Wolf puts it, “It is not a matter of protecting people ‘or’ the economy but of protecting people ‘and’ the economy”. 

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