Lockdowns have become commonplace as a way to prevent or stall a flare-up in Covid-19 infections. The justification for a lockdown must be more than just saving the life of the 1% or so of those who get infected since there are significant costs placed on the broader community. These costs can be as minimal as not being able to enjoy a movie or as great as forcing a company into bankruptcy and subsequent unemployment. A full cost-benefit analysis should be undertaken to justify a lockdown,
Cost-benefit analyses are very difficult to do, as this blog entry by Ryan Bourne of the CATO institute points out https://www.cato.org/blog/cost-benefit-analysis-lockdown-very-difficult-do-well . But as with many economic questions, while it is difficult to make conclusive inference about the absolute effects of a policy, it is a lot easier to make inferences about changes in policy from one state to another or from one point in time to another. The Calculus of lockdown is very useful.
When the Covid pandemic first emerged, very little was known about the disease itself. Just over a year later, we now know that older people are more likely to suffer severe effects while younger people are more likely to spread the virus. The genetic structure of the virus was quickly deciphered and a number of vaccines developed and approved to protect everyone with the most at risk innoculated first. Contact tracing has become a science. In fact, there is an enormous body of knowledge that can be mobilised to generate a picture of what an effective lockdown should look like compared with one year ago. So what should an effective lockdown look like now compared with a year ago?
First and foremost, with the majority of the most vulnerable in the community already vaccinated, the benefit of any lockdown policy is largely negated – saving lives is no longer a justification if there are no deaths to be had! Second, since the young are more likely to spread the disease, schools, playgrounds and sporting arenas are worth restricting. Third, and most importantly, since the benefits side of the ledger is lower, the costs that the policy imposes on society should also be lower.
This Calculus suggests that policies that aim to extinguish Covid at all costs are not justifiable.