by Toby Green Jay Bhattacharya
Thursday, 22
July 2021

Lockdowns are killers in the global south

Many excess deaths in the developing world are pegged to GDP, not Covid
by Toby Green Jay Bhattacharya
Migrant workers in New Delhi. Credit: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

A report on India’s excess mortality published on Tuesday by the Center for Global Development. The report’s authors estimated total excess deaths in India over the past 15 months at a staggering 4.9 million. In other words, if mortality rates over these months had resembled those in recent years, 4.9 million Indians would still be alive today.

The report is impressive in its data and methods, but the interpretation the authors provided is not. They argued that the increased excess death rate proves that Covid mortality was higher by “several orders of magnitude” than the 420,000 Covid deaths currently registered in India.

We agree that this indicates that Covid mortality in India may be much higher than official figures suggest. But does this report, as The Guardian suggested, give the “most comprehensive picture yet of the true toll of the pandemic in India” — or does it rather reveal the stark impact of lockdowns on the Global Poor? All indications point the finger unerringly at lockdowns.

When the government imposed lockdowns last spring, ten million migrant workers in India’s cities, many of whom live hand to mouth from their daily labour, were thrown out of work. In India’s version of America’s Trail of Tears, workers were forced to return to their home villages, sometimes thousands of miles away. We have personally received staggering reports of millions of migrant workers from West Bengal still stranded and starving, as their work has evaporated and with it any livelihood to sustain them and their families.

India’s GDP fell by a record 7.3% in the year to March 31st. Research conducted with 75 households in Uttar Pradesh state showed that household incomes had slumped by an average of 75% over that time. As a BBC Newsnight report on Monday showed, the impact of this on public health in India is catastrophic.

In a bid to reserve health care for Covid patients in the early months of the epidemic, India restricted access to clinics even for direly ill patients. This policy left hundreds of thousands of tuberculosis, HIV, cancer, malaria, diabetes, and obstetrics patients (and countless others) without needed medical attention. By one accounting, missed treatments for tuberculosis alone in the early lockdown caused an additional 400,000 tuberculosis deaths.

Research has long shown that life expectancy and GDP are closely connected in poor countries: a slight increase in GDP can greatly increase life expectancy, whereas a decrease in GDP will also decrease it. The cause of the near-5 million increase in India’s excess deaths last year is thus not mainly Covid-19, but the economic, medical, and social consequences of the lockdowns implemented in spring 2020 and the panic that followed.

These findings tally with events elsewhere. In Peru, 2020 all-cause mortality increased by 96% over the running 3-year average — dwarfing increases elsewhere in Latin America. In early June, the Peruvian authorities attributed much of this mortality to Covid, reversing earlier attribution to non-Covid causes. This move more than doubled the death toll from the virus, making Peru’s per capita mortality rate almost twice that of the next worst-affected country.

Yet Peru has also had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. Authorities have pointed to cramped and poor living conditions as a reason for the failure of Peru’s lockdown to contain Covid. They have a point. It is mainly the rich with stable jobs who can afford lockdown.

Either way, the case of Peru is a hard one for lockdown advocates to defend. Either lockdown did not control the spread of Covid, or their impacts induced death at catastrophic levels from other causes, as appears to be the case in India.

So why argue over the cause of death?  Should we not simply chalk the problem up to the disruption caused by the pandemic for poor countries — a horrific and unavoidable tragedy — and leave it at that?  After all, we all know that the global poor are the most vulnerable people on Earth.

We should resist this fatalistic reasoning. If lockdowns are the cause of this terrible carnage, as we maintain, and they are ineffective in preventing the direct harm from the virus, then we should eschew them as a pandemic tactic.

Join the discussion

  • And now we have Mitch McConnell threatening the American population with more lockdowns as a way of coercing vaccination. Pretty clear who is sponsoring him, and where his allegiances lie.

  • That Big Tobacco lobbied and got government to be on their side, and killed great many people that way is not surprising, Big Tobacco was never a benevolent industry.

    That Big Pharma, and the entire Medical Industrial Complex, has done the exact same, with as many deaths likely, does seem surprising; one thinks of Medical as a ‘Caring’ business. But it is shown now to just be another industry 100% driven for profits, and just as ready to buy political favors at the expense of lives for money.

  • I live in Goa in India and I am fully behind this article, – except that the estimate of ten million migrant workers is almost certainly an underestimate, it’s probably closer to fifty million.
    Goa is India’s smallest state with a population of about 1.6 million. Literacy levels are high, English is very widely spoken (a key issue in the type of employment available), and the per capita income in the state is just about the highest of any state in India.
    The result is that very few locals want to do menial, manual, or low grade jobs. Virtually all these jobs are filled by non-Goans, mainly from the poorer, high population density states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh, amongst others. Many are from the north-eastern states, well over a thousand miles away. Their families remained in their villages, and the bread winner sent most of his earnings to them.
    Goa has (had!!) a thriving tourist and hospitality sector, it is one of the two main drivers of the local economy.
    The lockdown, which was India wide, shut down the sector almost totally. Overnight well over 100,000 people found that they had no job, no money, and nowhere to live. They were often reduced to begging for a few rupees to be able to eat, and somehow get home to their village. The desperation on their faces was harrowing. The problem was that they couldn’t easily get home either, because the buses and trains were shut down too. No help was forthcoming from government. A large proportion of them started to walk in the hope that someone would give them a lift, even though they lived, in many cases, hundreds of miles away. Unsurprisingly, there was an increase in bicycle theft.
    For the middle classes, not just in India but world wide, lockdown is not much more than an inconvenience. For the poor it has been devastating, and it is they who have borne the brunt of the catastrophe that is lockdown. The 4.5 million estimated excess deaths are a result of the destruction in the economy, not Covid itself.
    When the history of Covid comes to be written, it is the politicians across the world (aided and abetted by the media), whose panicked and hysterical reactions have caused so much devastation, who will be held to account. Unfortunately, nothing will happen to them. They (and the media) will all continue with their comfortable lives and escape prison sentences.

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