At the beginning of the pandemic, in March and April of 2020, a dichotomy was put forward: lives or the economy? We chose lives. Moreover, based on the limited data we had, many economists were quick to say that this is a false dichotomy: based on the data we had, allowing the virus to spread unchecked would be an unmitigated disaster that would destroy both lives and the economy.
Covid-deniers were rightly chided for sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring this, hoping that by denying the reality of the virus, the consequences would somehow not materialize. Indeed, the covid-deniers were wrong. Fortunately, though, the virus turned out to be far less deadly than originally imagined and modelled.
It also turned out to be far more deadly toward certain age and risk groups, while for healthy young people (who make up the bulk of the work force), it has proven to exhibit the fatality rate of other common activities such as driving an automobile or other illnesses such as seasonal influenza (proving much less deadly than the flu for children and much more deadly than the flu for the elderly). Few people have bothered to redo the initial economic analysis based on this obviously important fact.
What is more, recent studies have now begun to show that the economic toll of lockdowns will have far-reaching effects not just on livelihoods and bank accounts, but on social determinants of health, healthcare funding and other health determinants dependent on a healthy economy.
This long-term toll has been shown by those bold enough to look at and accept the analysis to be far more deadly than the toll of the virus itself. Our lockdowns will take far more years of life from the next generation (especially the vulnerable and working poor) than we are squeezing out for our own. This tragedy has already begun to materialize in the third world where an estimated 135 million additional people will die of starvation due to the effect of lockdowns. The local consequences will take longer, but are just as assured.
And yet it appears a vast swath of society (along with the majority of politicians) have resolved themselves to stick their heads in the sand, ignore this reality, and hope that by denying economic cause-and-effect, the guaranteed consequences of lockdown will somehow not materialize. In economics, there are no free lunches, yet many appear to have become economy-deniers.
As the vaccine begins to roll out among healthcare professionals, the elderly and the vulnerable, it is more important than ever that we take our collective heads out of the sand. A phased reopening based on risk levels would be far more ideal (and life-saving) than waiting around for an entire population to be vaccinated. After opening schools, for example, allowing healthy people under 30 - who do not live with those outside their age bracket - to move about freely and work if they choose to do so would allow immunity to be built up without significantly impacting (let alone "overwhelming") hospitals.
It would also benefit the demographic hardest hit by lockdowns, increasing demand for labor in a low-risk age group our lockdowns have unfairly battered. But this trade-off and refusal to think in extreme terms (e.g. "we refuse to reopen anything until it's totally risk-free for everyone") requires us to stop being economy-deniers and face the reality that the economic decisions we make now have real and serious consequences to the lives and lifespans of others.
Al Hounsell is a Toronto lawyer with a background in finance and economics.
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