Last year COVID-19 seemed straightforward. It was awful, but the arguments about what to do were pretty straightforward.
On the one hand, there were people alarmed by its rapid spread who wanted us to stay home and stay away from school, work and socializing in order to save lives.
On the other side, people were worried about the costs of these measures – to jobs, education, freedom, mental health and other lives (because if we used too much of our health care system to fight against COVID-19, other lives could fall through the cracks).
And through it all came a kind of consensus.
Concern over deaths unrelated to COVID has been shown to be exaggerated. Last year Australia recorded fewer doctor-certified deaths than normal, in part because COVID restrictions halted flu deaths, and in part because they choked out COVID-19 early, ensuring that hospitals are not overwhelmed.
Last year we didn’t have to choose
Concerns about employment were also exaggerated. By locking out hard and early, and paying employers to keep staff (via JobKeeper), we ensured that lockouts were relatively short-lived, with light at the end of the tunnel.
In none of the states for which data are available has there been an increase in suicides.
Insurance company ClearView told a parliamentary committee in June that its research found things were going better than expected, in part because of the universal nature of the pandemic. Everyone knew that “everyone was in the same boat”.
Another reason was telehealth. It was easier to get help than before.
And students returned to school sooner than they would have been had the blockages been weaker or started later, leaving much of their education untouched.
The consensus was that by locking down hard and early, we were getting the best of both worlds – virtual elimination of COVID-19 and a quick return to normal life. Anyone who remembers Christmas last year remembers how normal it was (if you weren’t on Sydney’s normal beaches).
Economics is called gloomy science in part because it is about tough choices – situations where we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Last year it looked like COVID wasn’t one of them. Starving the virus early has given us both one of the world’s lowest death rates and one of its shortest recessions.
The tough choices are back in sight
And then came Delta.
Much more contagious than the original and with fewer immediate symptoms (making it harder to trace), the Delta variant has become nearly impossible to control in the two major states where it has settled.
And without very high vaccination rates – in the Grattan Institute‘s opinion significantly higher than the governments of NSW, Victoria or the Commonwealth – it has become virtually impossible to reopen without condemning Australians to more deaths from COVID.
The new reality takes us back to what economists call theirs – the world of tough choices.
If the blockages do not end, education, mental health and jobs will indeed suffer.
Businesses can hold out without pulling the pin.
We are getting closer to having to trade lives for freedoms; we are getting closer to having to decide how many COVID deaths and how many COVID illnesses we are prepared to live with in order to get back to something more like normal life.
Last week’s NSW “Roadmap to Freedom” implicitly made those compromises.
The calculations prepared by the Treasury and the Grattan Institute make them more explicit.
Endless blockages are not durable
There are few important things to note. One is that we might still be able to get the best of both worlds.
We might still be able to effectively eliminate the Delta strand, restoring both health and freedoms (as we did with the previous strand).
This will not happen if we relax the restrictions before transmission stops, as some states provide.
Another is that endless blockages are untenable. While last year’s lockdowns did not cause the psychological, health and educational damage that was feared, endless lockdowns would.
One type of damage clearly evident in the comprehensive report on last year’s closures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is family and domestic violence. The longer the blockades last, the more likely the high violence is to continue.
And another thing to note is that in a world where we have to compromise, there aren’t any particularly good options. Allowing disease to spread in order to restore freedom of movement would in itself be restricting freedom of movement.
Analysis across U.S. states suggests that 90% of last year’s collapse in face-to-face shopping was due to fear of COVID rather than formal COVID restrictions. This fear will increase if we lift the restrictions and COVID spreads.
The Grattan Institute has suggested lifting the blockages only when 80% of the total population has been doubly vaccinated (and not 70-80% of people aged 16 and over as predicted by NSW and national plans, which represents 56 to 64% of the population).
Grattan believes his plan would cost 2,000 to 3,000 lives per year; a cost he believes the public would accept.
NSW and National Plans (Victoria’s is not specified) would cost significantly more.
No option is particularly good
The Commonwealth Treasury finds, perhaps counterintuitively, that an aggressive foreclosure strategy that saved more lives would impose lower economic costs (about $ 1 billion a week less) in part because it would end up producing fewer interlocks.
These are the kinds of calculations we hoped we would never have to do.
There’s still a chance we won’t. With Herculean effort, NSW and Victoria could yet join Taiwan, New Zealand and all other Australian states to be effectively COVID-free.
But they are running out of time.
Peter Martin is a visiting scholar at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. This article originally appeared on The Conversation.