NSW’s health minister, Brad Hazzard, raised the prospect of abandoning the lockdown and accepting that “the virus has a life which will continue in the community” at a press conference on Wednesday. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have rejected that idea, but many voices in the media have been pushing it.
As with pandemic policy in general, much of the discussion of the Sydney outbreak has framed the problem as one pitting health against the economy. In this framing, epidemiologists and public health experts are seen as the advocates of saving lives, while economists are seen as the advocates of saving money.
In reality, the great majority of Australian economists support policies of aggressive suppression or elimination — that is, keeping case numbers close to zero, and clamping down when an outbreak threatens.
As with epidemiologists, that broad agreement encompasses a range of views about the appropriate response in any particular case.
Some economists, and some epidemiologists, supported the NSW government’s decision to delay a lockdown, while others wanted earlier action. But only a minority in either group support the idea of ending restrictions and waiting for herd immunity to protect us.
Unfortunately, as we have already seen in the case of climate change, many media outlets thrive on conflict. It is more interesting to present a debate between a pro-lockdown public health expert and an anti-lockdown economist than to present a nuanced discussion of the best way to suppress the virus, taking into account insights from a range of disciplines.
Understanding exponential growth
Why have economists endorsed the policy of suppression with more enthusiasm than, for example, political and business leaders?
First, because economists understand the concept of exponential growth.
While economics’ stress on growth is rightly contested, its centrality to economic concepts means related concepts from epidemiology, such as the reproduction number (R), are immediately comprehensible to us.
Once you understand how rapidly exponential processes can grow, the idea that lockdowns are “disproportionate responses to a handful of cases”, as The Australian has editorialised, loses its superficial attraction.
A clear majority of economists surveyed by The Conversation in May 2020 (after the end of the national lockdown) supported strong social distancing measures to keep R below 1. Most of those who disagreed felt alternative measures could hold R below 1 at lower costs. Only a handful supported a “let it rip” strategy.
- ^ has resurfaced (www.smh.com.au)
- ^ on Wednesday (www.abc.net.au)
- ^ health against the economy (www.smh.com.au)
- ^ Open letter from 265 Australian economists: don't sacrifice health for 'the economy' (theconversation.com)
- ^ the great majority (covid19openletter.net)
- ^ has editorialised (www.theaustralian.com.au)
- ^ The Conversation in May 2020 (theconversation.com)
- ^ CC BY-ND (creativecommons.org)
- ^ Economists back social distancing 34-9 in new Economic Society-Conversation survey (theconversation.com)
- ^ Yes, lockdowns are costly. But the alternatives are worse (theconversation.com)
- ^ Vital Signs: the cost of lockdowns is nowhere near as big as we have been told (theconversation.com)
Authors: John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland