Last August, I produced a draft cost-benefit analysis for the Victorian Parliament as a demonstration of how such an exercise should be conducted. Costs of locking down must be weighed against the projected benefits, with nothing ever known for certain but best guesses made in the wide range of areas directly affected by lockdown policies.
These costs include the loss of happiness due to loneliness from social isolation, the crowded-out healthcare for problems other than COVID, the long-term costs to our children and university students of disrupting their education, and the economic losses that have shuttered businesses, damaged whole sectors, increased inequality, and will depress our spending on everything from roads to hospitals for years to come. Deaths from causes other than COVID may well result.
The leadership of NSW seems not to have considered any of these costs in deciding how to respond to the recent uptick in COVID cases. Where is the argument that the actions taken are expected to yield maximum total welfare? Why are we still focusing rabidly on COVID when the country hasn’t lost a person with that disease since last year and hundreds of people are suffering and dying daily of all manner of other things?
I deduce that total welfare is not the NSW government’s maximand. Consider that we are hearing disproportionately about counts of cases, rather than counts of people suffering symptoms or hospitalised. If we counted cases of all viruses that infect us, and treated them like the fearsome pestilence of the sort that COVID has been elevated to in the media, we would do nothing all day but hide under the bed. What matters is human suffering and death – not whether someone tests positive to a particular virus.
What is going on now is a political game. We the people are the human sacrifice being offered by NSW leadership on the altar of “saving lives” – when in fact there is paltry evidence of a connection in a COVID world between shelter-in-place orders and lives saved. This is the finding of research released just this month by Virat Agarwal and co-authors from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US. These authors examined data from 43 countries and all US states, looking for a positive link between shelter-in-place (SIP) orders and excess deaths. The only countries in which they observed a fall in the trajectory of excess deaths were Australia, New Zealand and Malta. “All three countries are islands,” they reported. “In every other country, we observe either no visual change in excess deaths or increases in excess deaths.”
Agarwal’s paper only counts excess deaths in the immediate period around lockdowns. However, lockdowns also carry immediate costs of suffering (such as declines in mental health due to loneliness) and long-run costs in many dimensions, which a complete cost-benefit analysis would reveal. As my analysis showed last year, counting these additional costs reveals that even in an island nation like Australia, lockdowns are not worth it.
A lack of gain from blanket lockdowns was the logic embedded into our pandemic response plans that were in place pre-COVID and then summarily scrapped in March 2020. Even in my own analysis of last August, I guessed there would be some sort of benefit from lockdowns, in the form of COVID lives saved. It now seems I may have been wrong. Our government owes its people a transparent reading on all excess deaths during SIP orders – that is, lockdowns – and a full costing of its lockdown policies that counts both deaths and suffering.
Australia has had a good result in terms of COVID deaths, and our measured GDP is back to pre-pandemic levels. However, these results are not due to blanket lockdown policies. Instead, JobKeeper and a stack of lucky cards have produced these results about which our politicians are now crowing. Two of Australia’s most potent aces have been our geography and our demography.
What is going on here is not the fight of our lives against a fearsome pestilence. It is politicians willingly sacrificing their people’s welfare, hoping the people see their actions as a sufficient offering. It’s the modern analogue of killing virgins in the hope of getting a good harvest.
We need to stop this madness. Right now, we need to focus our attention and protection on the people in our population who are actually vulnerable to serious effects of this virus. We need to buy medicines and establish treatment protocols that work to reduce the severity of COVID symptoms, while offering vaccinations to anyone in vulnerable groups who wants them – with no compulsion, and no tethering of population vaccination rates to border openings.
The good news is that much of the world seems to be waking up to the fact that shelter-in-place directives are tantamount to a ritualistic human sacrifice. They’re losing their religion, slowly but surely.
We can’t lose ours soon enough.
This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.