Elaine He’s piece at Bloomberg on the effectiveness of European countries’ lockdowns strikes me as quite important. I’ll try to summarize it for you. In terms of cubic inches much of the piece consists of three infographics: a heat chart indicating the stringency and onset of lockdown measures for 17 European countries, graphs illustrating excess mortality over time for 12 of them, and, finally, a scattergram illustrating the change in industrial production and, presumably, “economic pain” from the lockdowns for 13 of them.
Here are some telling passages from the piece:
While not a gauge of whether the decisions taken were the right ones, nor of how strictly they were followed, the analysis gives a clear sense of each government’s strategy for containing the virus. Some — above all Italy and Spain — enforced prolonged and strict lockdowns after infections took off. Others — especially Sweden — preferred a much more relaxed approach. Portugal and Greece chose to close down while cases were relatively low. France and the U.K. took longer before deciding to impose the most restrictive measures.
But, as our next chart shows, there’s little correlation between the severity of a nation’s restrictions and whether it managed to curb excess fatalities — a measure that looks at the overall number of deaths compared with normal trends.
On excess mortality:
In Europe, roughly three groups of countries emerge in terms of fatalities. One group, including the U.K., the Netherlands and Spain, experienced extremely high excess mortality. Another, encompassing Sweden and Switzerland, suffered many more deaths than usual, but significantly less than the first group. Finally, there were countries where deaths remained within a normal range such as Greece and Germany.
Yet the data show that the relative strictness of a country’s containment measures had little bearing on its membership in any of the three groups above. While Germany had milder restrictions than Italy, it has been much more successful in containing the virus.
The overall impression is that while restrictions on movement were seen as a necessary tool to halt the spread of the virus, when and how they were wielded was more important than their severity. Early preparation, and plentiful health-care resources, were enough for several countries to avoid draconian lockdowns. Germany, with better testing and contact tracing and more intensive care units than its neighbors, could afford to keep the economy a bit more open. Greece, by acting quickly and surely, appears to have avoided the worst, so far.
and here’s her conclusion:
The Covid-19 experience has taught us that it’s far better to respond quickly and smartly, with the right technology and mass testing and tracing, rather than only relying on the crudest of shutdowns. If there are second waves of the virus, we shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the first.
I’m not sure I’d draw those conclusions from the data she’s presented. I think I’d be more likely to conclude:
- Lockdowns as such are not an effective method of reducing mortality but they are an effective method of reducing economic activity. It doesn’t matter much how early they were imposed or how strict they were. Lockdown measures as such do not reduce excess mortality. Despite imposing lockdown measures as early as February, Italy still suffered considerable excess mortality.
- Confounding factors are probably more significant in reducing excess mortality than testing or contact tracing. Confounding factors include demographics, the level of health of the populace, the robustness of the health care system, who knows how many other factors, and, probably dumb luck.
I continue to believe that we should be looking more closely at Portugal’s example. They imposed their lockdown measures later than most and, initially, rather lightly, they’re opening up earlier than many, and their excess mortality has been relatively low. Maybe Portugal’s success is just a matter of being small, comparatively isolated, and having high social cohesion.