Those who agree with the first statement – i.e. who argue that maximum wellbeing cannot be achieved without first attempting to eradicate COVID-19 – are against halfway measures (Richard Easterlin and Shun Wang). Arthur Grimes also argued that initial strict lockdown was appropriate in the context of the paucity of information we had. If lockdown had not taken place, the option of eradication would have been permanently forgone (Davies and Grimes, 2020).
Almost all respondents however agreed on the fact that COVID-19 was an important threat and thus its reduction and/or eradication was crucial to wellbeing. Nevertheless, respondents who disagreed with the statement emphasized the importance of taking externalities into account and on the need for policy makers to analyze trade-offs and do a cost-benefit analysis when implementing policies (Ori Heffetz; Marc Wooden; Ruut Veenhoven; Andreas Knabe; Stephen Wu; Maurizio Pugno; Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell; Christopher Boyce; Christian Krekel; Tony Beatton). Our panelists highlighted that although physical health is one of the most important thing for individuals, it is not the only variable affecting wellbeing, and many stressed the psychological effects of lockdown and the fact that economic uncertainty, education inequalities and bad prospects in general can be long lasting and broadly spread (Ronnie Schoeb; Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell; Christopher Boyce; Christian Krekel; Tony Beatton). Tony Beatton points to the need for data to understand the magnitude of the negative effects of lockdown and lists, to mention a few, domestic violence, suicide, and, early death of already ill people being unable to access healthcare (e.g. cancer treatment) during the lockdowns.
Gigi Foster, Paul Frijters, and Tony Beatton have a somewhat stronger opinion than the other panelists arguing that strict lockdowns have a strong negative effect on wellbeing. Gigi Foster argues that humanity had gone through “infectious communicable diseases that are worse than COVID-19 in terms of long-run destruction of health, and have not shut down whole economies in an effort to manage those diseases” (see here). Paul Frijters calculated the external effects at mid-March to be at least 50 times worse than reasonable estimates of the potential loss from the virus; and stresses that over time lockdown might “lead to more deaths, including in developing countries whose wellbeing has been totally disregarded by wealthier countries shutting their borders and trade”. Tony Beatton argues that politicians are following immunologists whose singular objective is to “have us live free of covid in the short run only to die from economic decline over time”.
Others who disagreed with the statement however stated some degree of need for strict lockdowns, but called for the urgency to implement policies that would relieve the economic and psychological effects of the lockdown (Daniel Benjamin). In this line, John Helliwell stressed the need to design policies that focus not on the trade-off, but on the need to improve both, health and the economy and mentioned New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, and Norway that have been successful in doing that; John Helliwell highlights the importance of trust and generosity to build a sense of “common purpose”.
In this line, Maurizio Pugno pointed to the importance of social capital and trust for policy effectiveness (Bartscher et al 2020). Individuals’ perception, understanding and compliance with those policies depend on the level of social capital. It is important that policymakers communicate well and build trust with citizens so that individuals themselves interpret the regulations correctly (Maurizio Pugno ; Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell). Maurizio Pugno argues that government credibility is crucial and that “weak and unreliable policies can reduce young peoples’ confidence in political leadership and institutions (Askoy et al 2020)”. If citizens trust institutions, policymakers can develop better policies and increase the quality of the policy debate. Stephen Wu argues that policy debates need to be subtle and move beyond the “binary terms (mask mandates vs. no mask mandates, keeping businesses open vs. keeping them closed)” to detailed discussions about “how large of an outdoor gathering should be allowed, how much should capacity be reduced in indoor settings, or under what circumstances should masks be mandated or not?”.
Those who most strongly disagreed with the first statement, also strongly disagree with Swedish approach to COVID-10 and argue that life and health are at the center of human rights (Shun Wang) and happiness (Richard Easterlin); and that the high health cost suffered in Sweden has not resulted in an economic performance better than other countries (Arthur Grimes).
There were also many other panelists (11) who, although disagreeing with the first statement, also disagreed, or neither agreed nor disagreed, that the Swedish approach resulted in better wellbeing outcomes. These panelists highlighted the high number of deaths in Sweden coupled with poor economic performance of comparable neighbouring countries (Ori Heffetz; Ronnie Schoeb; Daniel Benjamin; John Helliwell; Maurizio Pugno; Christopher Boyce; Tony Beatton) and the fact that a stricter policy might be useful during restricted time periods while hospital capacity is at strain (Andreas Knabe). They however pointed to the fact that we do not know what will happen in the longer run (Ronnie Schoeb; Ori Heffetz; Mark Wooden; Ruut Veenhoven; Stephen Wu; Christian Krekel; Tony Beatton): Sweden might have fewer deaths in the future (depending on the immunity) or a quicker economic recovery (Ori Heffetz; Mark Wooden; Stephen Wu). In addition, trust in herd immunity might be deceiving (John Helliwell). Christian Krekel stresses the importance of individuals’ reaction to COVID-19 and argues that we tend to overestimate the capacity of policies and underestimate individuals’ reaction to them (e.g., fear can lock down people and the economy even if a lockdown is not imposed).
Others agree with the proposition that the Swedish policy and governmental communication was positive for wellbeing (Gigi Foster, Paul Frijters): helped with immunity, helped us to learn how to better protect the vulnerable, and, will have better economic outcomes in the long run (Gigi Foster). Paul Frijters writes “The Swedes have kept their dignity, adherence to civic values and yet have experienced a relatively modest economic downturn and covid-related death toll”, which contrasts with the “huge wellbeing losses, mass unemployment and even higher death tolls” in countries such as the UK or some US states. Paul Frijters argues that the Swedish policy model based on trust is an example to follow, even if it could be improved, especially towards the vulnerable.
In sum, the vast majority of the panelists agree that policies aimed at fighting COVID-19 need to focus not only on the eradication of the pandemic, but must also take all negative externalities into account, if they are to treat citizen’s wellbeing as an important objective. Although all respondents agree that physical health is a major determinant of wellbeing, most argue that direct psychological distress and indirect anxiety caused by economic crisis and widening inequalities are equally important.
- Davies B and Grimes A. 2020. "COVID-19, lockdown and two-sided uncertainty."
- Askoy CG, et al 2020, "The Political Scar of Epidemics." NBER Working Paper 27401.
- Bartscher AK et al. 2020, "Social Capital and the Spread of COVID-19: Insights from European Countries." IZA DP No. 13310.