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This week there have been renewed calls in the media and among Australia’s political leaders to move beyond a “Zero Covid” mindset, to begin our transition out of ongoing lockdowns and learn to live safely with the virus.
These calls couldn’t come soon enough: the cost of lockdowns has been immense, and indeed will only be fully felt in the years to come.
Measuring the cost of lockdowns is a notoriously complicated task and will only ever be an approximation. Nevertheless, research conducted by University of New South Wales Business School’s Professor of Economics Gigi Foster suggests the cost of a six-week lockdown is at least three times any Covid-related benefits it might deliver. She reached this conclusion by viewing lockdowns favourably—that is, granting the unproven assumption that they do in fact save lives.
While modellers have thus far trained their attention on how many lives are saved by locking down, Professor Foster’s analysis found that, as a result of economically-driven declines in wellbeing, the equivalent of 2,170 lives are lost per month of lockdown.
Says Foster, “When you look at what we’ve done to our GDP, what that means is that we have damaged our capacity as a society to spend on things that promote human wellbeing in the future. And so that massive crowd-out will be with us for years to come.”
She added that “no one’s ever been arguing for ‘let it rip’, but a mitigation strategy in which you target protection to those groups that you think are most vulnerable based on data.” Indeed, given the high levels of fear surrounding Covid, even a wholesale opening up of Australia today would see many continue to live their lives with significant caution in the months and years ahead.
One aspect of lockdowns not covered in Professor Foster’s research, but which many others have acknowledged, is the inequitable costs they impose on the poor. “Lockdowns have been a boon for big, online businesses, but they are the death knell for the small, family-run businesses that are the bedrock of our society,” Senator Matt Canavan told the Australian parliament this week.
White-collar, high-paid professionals have had the luxury of working from home with little change to their income, says Canavan, and they have the added advantage of being able to “retreat to homes with swimming pools, backyards, gyms and gardens”. Meanwhile, the cost is felt differently by construction, service workers and other blue-collar types who have been laid off or seen major reductions in pay. “In the western suburbs, a single mum is jailed inside a two-bedroom home, all while trying to keep her three kids occupied, and losing her income and job.”
It is hard to argue with Canavan’s assessment. We already know that the social ills worsened by lockdowns—such as domestic violence, financial insecurity, mental illness and unemployment—have long hurt the poor more than the wealthy. Lockdown policies have only exacerbated this gap, but so many of the well-to-do remain blissfully unaware of such realities.
Anecdotal evidence seen in newspaper headlines around the world over last year only confirm Professor Foster’s findings and Senator Canavan’s concerns. Consider the compilation of lockdown-induced news reports below.
Mental health. Twice as many UK children and adolescents were referred to mental health services than the previous year, setting a record high. Eating disorders in teenagers doubled during UK lockdown. In Australia, Kids Helpline saw a 200 percent increase in five-year-olds seeking help for mental health. Victoria’s repeated lockdowns are making children too anxious for school, creating a “wholly new group of school refusers”.
Addiction and substance abuse. Alcohol sales in Victoria increased 34 percent under compared to the same time the previous year. A UK charity reported an 86 percent year-on-year rise in the number of people seeking help for addictions. Over 93,000 Americans died from an overdose last year, exceeding previous records by 29 percent. Yale research showed a strong link between lockdowns and alcohol cravings among New Yorkers.
Domestic violence and abuse. Domestic violence support groups warned that Victoria’s lockdown “left victims isolated in the family home, with their abusers angered by job losses and fuelled by alcohol and drugs”. Sexual assaults in NSW reached record highs after 2020 lockdowns, with police reports up more than 10 percent. Among hundreds of domestic family violence agencies across Australia, over 40 percent reported a significant rise in controlling and coercive behaviour. Reports of sexual abuse to Kids Helpline rose 70 percent in Victoria. Australian mediation group reports an 87 percent increase in couples seeking to settle their separation.
Suicide. Juvenile suicides in Japan were the highest they’ve been since recording began in 1980. Nearly one in 10 Victorians seriously considered suicide during the height of last year’s lockdowns. Victorian teenage suicide threats jump 184 percent, with three quarters of these among 13-18 year olds. In the UK, five times more children died by suicide than covid.
Lockdowns have done enough damage to Australians. All the while, their benefits have only been modelled, not proven. The time has come for us to safely open up.