Will the number of lives saved as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions be outweighed by the deaths from an economic recession?
This is a vital question to answer for governments responding to the current global tragedy.
The estimates we have used for increased deaths from a lockdown-induced recession are at the high end of the likely scale. The estimates we have used for deaths from COVID19 if the lockdown ends are at the low end.
Our analysis suggests that continuing strict restrictions in order to eradicate COVID-19 is likely to lead to eight times fewer total deaths than an immediate return to life as normal.
Lives the lock-down could cost
The most obvious deaths likely to follow from a lock-down-induced recession are suicides.
To account for the prospect that the coming recession will be more severe than most, we have used double the highest European estimate of the relationship between increased unemployment and suicide.
This estimate suggests that an increase in the unemployment rate to 15% followed by a gradual decline over ten years would produce a distressing 2,761 extra deaths due to suicide.
Loneliness takes lives too
Research suggests that quarantine can increase the number of people showing psychological distress by about 20%, an estimate we have used as a proxy for the effect of loneliness, even though the lock-down restrictions are less severe than quarantine.
This points to an additional 4,015 deaths associated with loneliness from a lock-down of six months.
Although it would be reasonable to assume that a recession would increase the number of deaths from other causes, studies show this isn’t the case. Research into “all-cause mortality” consistently shows declines in deaths during recessions, due in part to a reduced number of heart attacks.
The current lock-down might also increase deaths in specific ways, such as deaths from alcohol abuse.
On the other hand, if hospitals are overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, deaths from non-COVID-19 injuries and illnesses will increase as people cannot access health care.
Because we have no data on these offsetting possibilities, we have assumed they are roughly matched in size.
It is also worth noting that although we assume lock-down restrictions will hurt our economy more severely, cities that implemented more severe restrictions during the 1918 Spanish flu had economies that bounced back faster after the pandemic.
Lives the lock-down might save
We have estimated the number of deaths from COVID-19, suicide and loneliness under three different scenarios
an immediate return to life as normal, while still quarantining suspected cases
an easing of restrictions that allows the virus to slowly spread in order to achieve so-called herd immunity
the maintenance of restrictions until the virus is contained, followed by extensive tracking and tracing aimed at eliminating the virus
Scenario 1. Return to normal
- ^ numbers (www.tandfonline.com)
- ^ Daniel West (paxtonpartners.com.au)
- ^ 4.45% (citeseerx.ist.psu.edu)
- ^ in Australia (onlinelibrary.wiley.com)
- ^ 15% (www.abc.net.au)
- ^ decade (www.abc.net.au)
- ^ COVID lockdowns have human costs as well as benefits. It's time to consider both (theconversation.com)
- ^ loneliness (www.researchgate.net)
- ^ 15% (journals.plos.org)
- ^ 29% (journals.sagepub.com)
- ^ 20% (www.thelancet.com)
- ^ Is your mental health deteriorating during the coronavirus pandemic? Here's what to look out for (theconversation.com)
- ^ declines in deaths (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ pandemic (papers.ssrn.com)
- ^ 68% (www.pm.gov.au)
- ^ 60% (www.health.gov.au)
- ^ 11.6% (www.pm.gov.au)
- ^ Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney (www.theaustralian.com.au)
- ^ Coronavirus is stressful. Here are some ways to cope with the anxiety (theconversation.com)
- ^ here (drive.google.com)
Authors: Neil Bailey, Research Fellow at the Epworth Centre for Innovation in Mental Health, Monash University