Lockdowns, especially in low-income countries resulted in higher mortality among a group rarely considered in the international narrative on COVID-19– children, concludes a report by a prominent economic research organization.
“In lower-income countries, the economic contractions that accompany lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19 can increase child mortality, counteracting the mortality reductions achieved by the lockdown,” state the authors. The report, “Intergenerational Mortality Tradeoff of COVID-19 Lockdown Policies,” was published in June by the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Four of the six authors of the study are employed by the World Bank, the other two are with the National University of Singapore and the University of Michigan, respectively.
To formulize and quantify the unprecedented lockdowns’ effect on child mortality, the researchers built what they call a “macro-susceptible-infected-recovered model” that featured heterogeneous agents and a country-group-specific relationship between economic downturns and child mortality and calculate it to data from 85 countries across all income levels.
The rise of the delta variant in India, Europe, Australia, Israel, and South America and the fact that COVID-19 appears to be bumping up against herd immunity in the U.S gave researchers an opportunity to calculate the human toll of lockdowns. Whether the benefits of such policies outweigh “the accompanying dramatic economic contractions” is what researchers were able to test out, and by extension, whether this path should ever be taken again in confronting future pandemics.
For Every Adult Life Saved
For every adult life saved from COVID-19, the researchers calculated that 1.76 lives of children were lost due to the downturns caused by shutting down economies. Children suffer differently depending on whether they live in low-, middle- or higher-income countries. “We estimate that a percent decrease in per capita GDP can increase under-5 mortality by up to 0.15 deaths per 1,000 children in the poorest countries.”
The reason for the difference is two-fold, state the authors. “The demographic composition of poorer countries features a larger ratio of young children to old people. Since the survival of the former is put at risk by an economic downturn while the latter are most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19, a lockdown in lower-income countries leads to more recession-induced deaths per COVID-19 fatality averted, ceteris paribus,” the authors write.
Social contacts in lower-income countries also center more on work or consumption. “The preponderance of community-related transmission in low-income countries renders government-mandated lockdowns comparatively less effective at reducing the spread of infections,” state the authors.
In assessing the disparate impact of lockdowns in poorer countries, much depends on “the resiliency of child survival to income shocks, [the] countries’ demographic characteristics, and patterns of social contacts,” the authors write. “The reason is that economic contractions in low-and-middle-income countries have been tied to increased rates of child mortality. During the COVID-19 period, disease control responses have contributed to declines of national income for much of the world.”
“Single Biggest Public Health Mistake”
Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, went even further in The Telegraph’s June 10 Planet Normal podcast.
“I do think that future historians will look back on this and say this was the single biggest public health mistake, possibly of all history, in terms of the harm it’s caused,” said Bhattacharya.
Bhattacharya cited the examples of abused children at home unable to get adults to step in, and of people with serious or undiagnosed illnesses who were reluctant to go to the hospital for fear of catching the virus.
“All of these kinds of harms, I think, even from the very beginning were going on. And yet we closed our eyes to them because we were so scared about the virus and so enamored with this idea that the lockdown could stop the virus,” said Bhattacharya.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D., (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Lin Ma, Gil Shapira, Damien de Walque, Quy-Toan Do, Jed Friedman, Andrei A. Lavchenko, “The Intergenerational Mortality Tradeoff of COVID-19 Lockdown Policies,” National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2021