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Costs and Benefits of Lockdowns

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July 19, 2021

What is the issue?

  • Lockdowns have become the handy option amidst the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
  • In this context, it is essential to make a cost-benefit assessment of lockdowns in both social and economic terms.

Why are lockdowns becoming unavoidable?  

  • As of mid-July-2021, 26.2% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Of them, only 1% live in low-income countries.
  • By contrast, the richer nations, such as the U.S., Canada, Germany and Britain, registered above 50% vaccination.
  • For India, the percentage of the adult population that has received at least one dose stands at 34.1%.
  • It is essential to eliminate this inequality in the administration of vaccines to ensure protection against the virus.
  • So, till that happens, long or short lockdowns from time to time will remain the only defence against the virus.

What are the challenges with lockdowns?

  • The impact of the lockdowns in economic terms is also to be taken into account.
  • The practicability of simultaneously protecting lives and livelihoods with the aid of lockdowns is questioned.
  • The trade-off between lives and livelihoods leads not only to a dilemma but a trilemma perhaps.
  • Draconian lockdowns help us keep on living, but they prevent us from earning a living.
  • With incomes drying up, essential expenditures such as those on food, health and education cannot be sustained.
  • This, in turn, implies that life could not be lived.
  • Extreme lockdown policies thus imply we cannot quite have our life and live it too, at least not meaningfully.

What does this call for?

  • The vicious trilemma (Livelihood, Saving life, Living life) needs to be torn down if humanity is to be preserved.
  • For this, the balance between the expected benefits of the lockdown policy and the costs involved has to be analysed.
  • If the latter is higher than the former, it is wise to adopt alternative policies, involving an excess of benefits over costs.
  • In other words, the nature of the trade-off has to be understood.

What do lockdowns cost?

  • The cost of lockdown could possibly be measured by the value of lost GDP. Here are some examples.
  • Both France and Italy imposed heavy lockdowns and suffered 3% shrinkage in GDP.
  • Not that people did not die, but the 3% shrinkage cost of keeping a number of people alive is significant.
  • Similarly, Finland, which experienced a negligible rise in the mortality rate, experienced a 1% fall in per capita GDP.
  • On the other hand, Lithuania performed miserably on its death rate front, but its GDP per person is expected to rise by 2%.
  • Research says that for every infected person cured in poorer countries, 1.76 children die on account of a fall in the quality of life.
  • This is worse than the trilemma scenario mentioned earlier.
  • The sufferings faced by migrant labourers in India is also to be considered.
  • Children are held back from school, increasing the cases of child labour.

What is the way ahead?

  • The cost of a human life is priceless.
  • In technical economic language, this amounts to asserting that the (monetary) price of a human life is infinitely high.
  • While this assertion is made, it is not suggested that lockdowns ought to be avoided.
  • Quite clearly, they are unavoidable for now.
  • But lockdown policies need to be carefully designed, guided by trade-offs between harsh and mild policies.


Source: The Hindu

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