Professor Paul Dolan

What is the true cost of the coronavirus lockdown?

Covid-19 is a public health crisis. At least, this is what the doctors, epidemiologists and clinicians who command the air waves are telling us. They’re right, of course. But it isn’t only that: it’s an economic and social crisis too – and yet social scientists have hardly been heard from. They don’t seem to be influencing policy that much either. When the UK government says its decisions are guided by the science, they appear to be referring only to the science of transmission of the virus and its direct consequences for health. And even health is narrowly defined here: as mortality risks in the next few months. The only graphs that typically appear at news conferences are those relating to the number of infections and deaths. As we enter the third week of a lockdown in the UK, the focus of addressing the death toll means suppression remains the only argument in town.

But even if the current lockdown prevents more direct deaths from Covid-19, and even if it will prevent more indirect deaths from health care systems being overwhelmed, can we suppose that the costs of economic and social meltdown (never mind the health losses from other causes) are worth it? 

We know that people care about all these things and are willing to make various trade-offs between them in their daily lives. And it is simply not true that individuals care only about health and mortality risks. In the current lockdown, many people would willingly put their own health at risk to be able to see their grandchildren, or attend the funerals of loved ones. As citizens too, we want resources allocated to reduce mortality risks, but we also care about mental health problems, addiction, domestic abuse, and child abuse, all of which are showing early signs of increasing after only two weeks of lockdown.

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