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Arguing against lockdowns? This is why you’re wrong

Number one: ‘The costs of lockdowns to the economy are too high’

Certainly, this crisis is damaging the economy. People are unemployed; businesses are hanging on by their fingernails; and some industries, such as arts and entertainment, have almost totally ceased to exist.

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It is wrong to assume that all this disruption is because of the lockdowns. Widespread COVID-19 infections cause people to change their behaviour due to fear of contracting the virus. When there is widespread infection in the community, there is a substantial reduction in economic activity regardless of the level of government-mandated restrictions.

People will restrict their mobility and not visit restaurants, for example, whether or not the government has imposed a lockdown. The international evidence is that this so-called self-limitation is responsible for a significant proportion of the economic downturn. In England, where restrictions have essentially been lifted, the government is subsidising people to go to restaurants because people are still staying away.

The costs to the Victorian economy that we all see are costs of the pandemic, not simply costs of the government-imposed lockdowns.

Certainly, the lockdown contributes to the downturn, but if there was no lockdown there would be greater circulation of the virus, more Victorians requiring hospital treatment, and more deaths. These costs would be higher without a lockdown than with one.

Number two: ‘National cabinet was wrong to establish a goal of zero cases’

A second argument against lockdowns is that we should simply learn to live with continuing COVID-19 infections. People who put this argument say that the lockdown is a disproportionate response to the threat, and that we should accept outbreaks and rely on testing and tracing as our main response.

This strategy would condemn at least 40 per cent of the population – those vulnerable Victorians identified by the government as being at higher risk from coronavirus – to restricted movement and limited participation in community life. In Sweden, a country beloved of those opposed to lockdowns, people at high risk have been encouraged to self-isolate for the past six months, including getting others to do their shopping.

People who argue against lockdowns should also be reminded that COVID-19 poses a risk to all of us, not just the elderly and the vulnerable. While the virus continues to circulate there will be risks of outbreaks. The longer the virus circulates, the greater that risk. With good luck, and good contact tracing, the outbreaks will be small – but the longer the virus circulates, the bigger the chance of a big outbreak and a return to lockdowns.

A “let the virus circulate” strategy increases the risk of a third wave and future lockdowns. It would mean continuing business uncertainty, continuing risks of infections, and continuing inequity because some Victorians would have more freedom to return to their “normal” life than others.

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So, although infection numbers are coming down and we can see light at the end of the tunnel, the Victorian government should double down and go for zero – that is, it should try to achieve its espoused goal of zero active cases in the community. This means continuing the lockdown and continuing to encourage all Victorians to support this strategy by wearing masks, staying inside, and limiting our excursions to necessary shopping or exercise.

The federal government should support these Victorian government actions in the interest of controlling the virus, getting the economy back on track, and creating a “travel bubble” within Australia so domestic tourism can resume.

Stephen Duckett is director of the health program at Grattan Institute.

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