by Ed West
Tuesday, 14
April 2020

Who says a Covid recession would mean more people dead?

by Ed West
A man stares out his window during lockdown. Credit: Getty

Will a recession caused by the coronavirus lockdown kill more people than it saves? That’s been an argument made by a few corona-sceptics since this crisis began, and their number may increase as the lockdown drags on.

Epidemiology is so outside of my field of expertise I don’t feel I need to have an opinion — people don’t need to have opinions on everything — but I am curious about the argument that a recession will cost lives, because I know that historically that is not true.

During the Great Depression, for example, death rates went down, mainly because people were drinking less and driving less; no doubt they were also a lot less happy, but as long as a country is wealthy enough for its citizens to eat and access basic medical treatment, recessions don’t necessarily kill people. In fact it’s often the case that good times are worse; for example, in occupied France the country’s historically very high levels of cirrhosis absolutely fell through the floor.

So I was interested to see (via Jonathan Portes) economist Angus Deaton making these same points in a webinar on “Deaths of Despair” (the subject of a book he co-authored, published last month). In his talk he points out that “all-cause mortality rates have fallen in Greece and Spain in [the] financial crisis” and that in the “Great Depression, mortality rates [reached] record lows.”

The reason for this is that “accidents of all sorts are low: highway, construction etc. Alcohol consumption goes down, esp. binge drinking. Pollution down, important for infant mortality”, and that less contact reduces infections (and murders). While suicides go up, they represent only 2% of deaths.

Already crime is down across the west, and I imagine road accidents too; I barely see any cars these days during my brief walk around the prison yard. Only the other day a bridge collapsed in northern Italy, but because of the lockdown no one died. Compare that to the 2018 Ponte Morandi collapse, which killed 43 people.

This is not to deny that a recession will be appalling, just that we should be sceptical of the argument that it will kill more people than the coronavirus. Covid-19 is an infectious illness with a fatality rate thought to be in the region of 1%, and without a lockdown it would likely kill considerable numbers of non-elderly people who would otherwise have many years of life ahead of them. The main moral argument for opposing a strict lockdown, that more people would die from the economic fall out, seems shaky at best.


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