Are we stopping living in order to stay alive? Have government shutdowns, restrictions, curfews, and so on meant that in order to protect people from the virus in order to reduce deaths damaged people’s lives? Have we stopped living life fully?
I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m an economist and I don’t know whether governments are going the right way in terms of solving health problems. What I do know is that governments are not even asking the right questions about how we should respond to this health crisis. Yes, it is a health crisis. Yes, there are roles for doctors and scientists. But what we have seen is that scientists and epidemiologists have got a very narrow focus. They are trying to reduce the spread of the virus, stop the number of people catching it, reduce the number of cases. They are not looking at the wider effects of what they are doing. We have had little or no impact not just from economists and practical people, but even regarding other health issues. We have not had any mental health input into the effects of lockdowns. We have just been focused on one single thing. We have been trying to keep people alive and ignoring all the other effects of that and that is potentially causing huge problems.
The first question is: are we even saving lives overall? It is quite possible that we are not. We have seen a reduction in people seeking healthcare for other problems, a massive reduction in cancer treatments, a massive reduction in people with heart problems going into hospitals. This is not because fewer people are getting cancer or a few people are having heart problems but because they are not seeking health care or not getting health care for that, partly because the doctors and hospitals have been busy and focusing on other things, but partly because of the government restrictions and lockdowns. The government is telling us not to go out and do different things and that has scared people. We’ve seen a lot of other problems as well. There has been a lot of mental health problems building up because of the lockdown, because people aren’t getting out as much there’s been a huge increase in loneliness. Governments are putting in curfews. They are telling people to stay at home, not to visit people, not to meet up with friends, not to do what until a year ago we would see as normal social interactions, part of normal life.
We have also had families cooped up together that sadly increased domestic violence, family breakdown, probably divorces once this is all over and people can separate. Because of the lockdowns, because of the restrictions on the economy, because businesses have been closing we have seen a lot of unemployment. All of those three things have big effects on people’s health and lives. In some studies, a 20 or 30 percent increase in premature deaths is caused by each of those things. It is quite possible that the effects of those and the lack of treatment are going to mean that the lockdowns have caused more health problems than they have solved; they could cause more deaths or at least more loss of life in terms of life-years than they have saved.
There is a famous saying by Thomas Sowell, that “There are no solutions [in economics], there are only trade-offs.” So, there is no absolute answer. There is no “this is the best thing to do.” There is always “whatever you do, it causes benefits, but it also causes problems.” The good old thing of “first, do no harm” means that we can’t do anything. Anything that we do causes advantages but also causes harm. And that is true also for lockdowns and all the restrictions that we are putting in. Yes, it can save lives at one level but it can also cost the lives of others. And also reduce and restrict people’s lives so much that it gets to the point that you ask “Have we really lived over the last year?”
All the normal things that we think of doing, meeting up with friends, socializing, school, college, education, meeting people, forming relationships, have been restricted so much that we have lost a year of our lives. For some people that is not so important. For the old middle-aged family people like me, it has been a nuisance but it has not been a huge problem. For younger people, it has been much more of a problem because they have missed out on so much, so many opportunities, all those new friendships that you should form, the things that you should be learning, discovering, and finding out about life in the early years.
It has been so restricted and the problem with this is that it has been government action, government mandates as to what we do about this, except a few countries that have allowed much more freedom (Sweden, some of the US states) which have given advice, told people what they should do, but have not given the restrictions. Most of Europe (Britain, France, Germany0 have had these very heavy top-down government restrictions telling you what to do. And governments can’t make these decisions for everybody. Everybody has different trade-offs, different benefits and costs of these lockdowns and the government just can’t and don’t take account of that. For some people, it has been very important to stay at home, to not go out and meet people, to keep safe because they are very vulnerable. Some of the elderly, some of the people with other health problems had to stay at home and had to face all these restrictions. But for a lot of other people, the cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t work like this. For a lot of younger people, the risk of getting seriously ill is very low, but the risk of health problems, of life problems from being locked down can be much greater. The cost of that, and not just the financial cost (although that as well), but the social cost, the developmental cost, the educational cost, are much higher.
For a lot of people, the cost-benefit analysis of lockdown says you should shut yourselves away and protect yourself, but for a lot of people, it is the other way. For a lot of people the costs, the risks, the losses are a lot higher than the benefits. But because we are seeing top-down one-size-fits-all imposed government restrictions rather than allowing people the choice to make their own decisions and to make their own trade-offs we are imposing a huge cost on society which is going to grow. Some of the costs are hidden and they are only going to come out over the next few years.
There is no absolute right answer to what we can do. What we can say is not whether the government has given the right answers but has the government even asked the right questions. Have they even considered these trade-offs? No, they haven’t. But by imposing this top-down view on everybody they have imposed the same cost-benefits on everyone rather than allowing people to make their own cost-benefit choices and to make their own risk and reward calculations.
A lot of people would have done differently. We know that because otherwise, governments wouldn’t have had to restrict, they wouldn’t have had to have brought new laws, they wouldn’t have had to bring in authoritative restrictions, or arrest people. What we have seen is that a lot of people when they have been given the chance have met up, have gotten together, have socialized, have had parties, legally or illegally. That is not necessarily a wrong thing. It is not necessarily an irrational choice for a lot of people. That is a sensible weighing up of the costs and benefits of the lockdowns.
What I would like to see, rather than government top-down restrictions is for the governments to treat people as sensible rational people, to allow their citizens to make decisions, to accept the fact that in a lot of cases these are going to be different. They are going to decide one way, others are going to decide the other way, and a lot of the time that is a rational decision based on those people’s circumstances. Rather than have these heavy centralized restrictions which are designed for everyone and don’t fit anyone at all, let’s open up. Not necessarily let everything happen, but allow people to make decisions for themselves, allow them to make their own risk and reward calculations, allow them to decide what is best for them in their own circumstances weighing the costs against the benefits and treating people like grown-ups who can make decisions for themselves about how best to live their own lives
Richard Teather is the leading British academic and consultant specializing in offshore tax. His book “The Benefits of Tax Competition” is held in government and university collections around the world.
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