The coronavirus lockdown has impacted businesses and economies around the world. Unemployment rose to record levels in the United States; millions have lost their jobs.
But the situation in less developed countries is even worse. People have lost their lives because of the lockdown. Millions are being pushed back into abject poverty.
Could the lockdown kill more people than the virus itself? Can the cure be worse than the disease?
In Third World countries, especially the densely populated cities in fast-growing countries, the fallout from the lockdown is grave. It has led to mass internal displacements and massive disruption of the supply-chain.
I live in Delhi, India’s capital city, with about 20 million people. A majority of daily wage laborers here are migrants from states across India. These migrant workers were left helpless upon the announcement of a complete lockdown.
Having no money to buy essential groceries or pay their rents, most decided to head back to their hometowns. But even that was a herculean task. With no public transport, most had to walk hundreds of miles with babies and children on their shoulders. Some traveled as far as 800 miles by foot.
The government has announced welfare measures, but getting food to the rural and urban poor is never easy in a country with 1.3 billion people and 300 million below the poverty line. Moreover, one needs the right government-issued identification to receive some of these relief measures — and many of the poor lack it.
The lockdown has also impacted farmers. Most of their produce is wasted because there are no workers to harvest and transport it. Fruits and vegetables are being dumped into pits. Some farmers fed unsold strawberries, lettuce, and broccoli to cattle.
Many farmers lost thousands of dollars, pushing them into dangerous financial situations. India has recently been in the news for farmer suicides; the on-going lockdown will surely exacerbate that problem.
Data suggest that the lockdown in India may not be serving its purpose. Since the first day of the lockdown (March 22), the number of infections has been growing at an exponential rate, just as it did before the lockdown (March 4–21). There has been no change in the number of infections.
So why kill hundreds of people and put millions more at risk if the lockdown is not serving its purpose?
This problem doesn’t seem to be limited to India. Rather, it seems to be a global problem. In the U.S., for instance, a partial lockdown of states was announced on the recommendation of experts — including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx — who suggested that the public should trust virus infection forecasts from predictive models that were not in sync with reality.
Several things combined to lead the administration of President Donald Trump to urge widespread shutdown of businesses and shelter-at-home orders.
First, official counts of infections almost certainly omitted large numbers of people who are infected but have no or only mild symptoms and so are never tested.
Dr. Robert Redfield, the director at Centers for Disease Control (CDC), said in a phone interview, “One of the [pieces of] information that we have pretty much confirmed now is that a significant number of individuals that are infected actually remain asymptomatic. That may be as many as 25 percent.”
This was evident in the coronavirus tests conducted among pregnant women at a hospital in New York. According to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 215 pregnant women were screened for COVID-19 (March 22–April 4), and 33 tested positive.
But only 4 among those 33 displayed symptoms of COVID19, and those were mild (fever). The remaining 29 were asymptomatic with no complications. All 33 delivered babies and were discharged, except for one who needed extra care.
It is likely 29 among these 33 could have been discharged from the hospital with their babies even without knowing that they were COVID-19 positive, if it had not been for the mandatory tests.
Second, the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 was likely exaggerated. Why? Because everyone who tested positive and died was counted as dying from it. Yet many had underlying serious lung and heart diseases to which they would have succumbed had they contracted ordinary flu or even a common cold. The deaths of such people would ordinarily have been attributed to their lung or heart conditions, not to flu or cold. But now they’re being attributed to COVID-19.
The result was that the mortality rate due to COVID-19 was exaggerated. The mortality rate is determined by dividing the number of infections (the numerator) by the number of deaths (the denominator). Understate the numerator and overstate the denominator, and the result — mortality rate — is overstated.
We do not know the actual mortality rate of COVID-19 because of the uncertainty surrounding the number of asymptomatic infections. Unless a whole population is screened, it is impossible to declare the mortality rate with precision. This is why widespread testing is important.
Widespread testing is not easy. But small countries like Iceland have made it possible. As of April 15, Iceland managed to screen 10 percent of its entire population. Along with South Korea, they top the global ranking for the number of tests conducted.
But surprisingly, they have also recorded some of the lowest mortality rates for COVID-19, in comparison to nations with very low test rates.
Iceland has recorded a mortality rate of 2.2 deaths per 100,000 while other countries with widespread testing also recording very low mortality rates (0.4 deaths per 100,000 in South Korea).
In contrast, countries with comparatively lower number of tests have recorded higher death rates (18.2 and 7.9 deaths per 100,000 in UK and US respectively).
The reason: the number of infections is more than just symptomatic and tested patients (denominator), and the number of deaths (numerator) actually caused by COVID-19 is lower than the number of deaths of people who simply had COVID-19 but whose deaths could not properly be attributed to it. As a result you have a lower mortality rate. So, it is likely that the case must be true in other countries as well.
If the mortality is lower than previously thought, then we would need no shutdown of the economy. The lockdown was adopted by the world only on the basis that the mortality rate is high and the virus is deadly.
But if the lockdown creates more damage than the virus itself, then governments should lift the lockdown and implement other public health practices instead.
Despite having the highest death rate per capita in the Nordic region, Sweden refused to implement a complete lockdown. Denmark now plans to open its primary schools.
In the U.S., the lockdown is unsustainable over the long term, with loss of trillions of dollars in production and bleak economic forecasts for months to come.
The most worrying aspect though is the loss of life that will result from the economic collapse. People forget that a reduction in economic output can kill thousands.
Calvin Beisner, founder of Cornwall Alliance, did an analysis of the existing economic research on the relationship between total economic production and death rates. The loss of GDP growth from the COVID-19 lockdown can cause from 6,500 to as many as 284,848 deaths in U.S., with most likely number in the range of 40,000 to 90,000.
Even the likely range is staggering. Certainly, lockdown as a solution has a potential to cause greater damage than the coronavirus itself, in both financial loss and deaths. The U.S. needs to reopen.
And that’s why last week, the Trump administration announced a phased reopening of the economy based on certain criteria.
A number of states have already expressed their intent to enter Phase 1 and are likely to reopen their economies in a staggered manner.
Maybe it’s time for other countries to reopen. If not, the poor and even the middle class could go through turmoil far worse than the impact of COVID-19.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is a Research Contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.