Lockdowns are being eased in many countries, but from different starting points in terms of prevalence of the virus, and with different near-term trade-offs between protecting life and easing constraints on economic activity.
The pressure to ease is understandable. The IMF estimates $10tn has been spent so far on official support measures worldwide, and forecasts global GDP will contract by an unprecedented 4.9% in 2020.
However, the WHO director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently insisted that there is an ‘urgent responsibility to do everything we can with the tools we have now to suppress transmission and save lives’, even as research into vaccines and therapeutics continues.
Focusing on suppressing and eliminating the virus as quickly as possible is not just the best strategy for saving life, it also makes most sense in terms of minimising the long-term economic damage from the pandemic.
The alternatives remain uncertain
Neither a vaccine nor improved treatment are currently sufficiently certain to be the focal point for an economic recovery strategy. Despite optimism about vaccine development, there is no certainty of a decisive outcome by a given date. And, even if a vaccine proved effective, manufacturing and distributing it to 8bn people will present an unprecedented set of logistical and economic challenges and take many months, if not years.
In the meantime, although substantial progress has been made in reducing loss of life among those made seriously ill by the virus - and who have access to advanced medical facilities - it remains highly dangerous for a significant proportion of the population - around 20% in advanced economies.
An alternative containment strategy based on gradually reducing the prevalence of the virus in the population by maintaining an “R” number (replication coefficient) just below one will be both economically costly and highly risky when compared with a decisive push to eliminate the virus quickly.
With an R number just below one it is true the virus may eventually disappear, but only over a lengthy period, during which economically damaging social distancing measures will have to stay in place, dragging out the impact on both demand and supply.
Wage support measures to limit ‘economic scarring’ will have to be maintained, and kickstarting the economy with a conventional fiscal stimulus will be difficult, if not impossible, especially when the ability - or willingness - of consumers to spend is still heavily constrained either by social distancing measures or a lack of confidence.
There is also a major risk when the R number is close to one that the virus could suddenly take off again, leading to a complete failure of the strategy.
Benefits of suppress and eliminate
A successful policy focused on suppressing and eliminating the virus offers much better prospects. First, the government can then protect the vast bulk of the economy within its territory, even if it means continuing travel restrictions for some time vis-a-vis countries that are less committed to or less successful in eliminating the virus.
Some sectors - particularly long-haul air transport - will be hard hit, but other critical high value or employment intensive sectors - such as domestic hospitality, leisure and the arts - will be able to make a substantial recovery. To put it bluntly, the authorities may have to hold back some sectors to save others. Such a strategy would also ensure an economy can participate sustainably in free travel zones with other countries.
Second, a drive to suppress and eliminate the virus in the shortest possible timeframe, and then maintain that status, will help authorities communicate clearly to the public the overarching framework guiding the application of social distancing measures, and the nature of the ‘new normal’ economy that can be expected to emerge over the medium to long-term.
Achieving such clarity will enhance the public’s trust in the government’s strategy and hence responsiveness to government instructions. It will also minimise unnecessary and costly adaptations by business and increase its ability to target new opportunities arising from the genuine long-term changes brought about by the crisis.
In addition, a suppress and eliminate strategy is the only sure way to address the disproportionate impact of the virus on ethnic minorities and the poor, and to put an end to the isolation of the millions who currently have to shield themselves.
We know that suppressing the virus almost completely within a given territory is possible because some countries have already done it - notably New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan. Some which started with a serious epidemic, such as China, Spain and Italy, have also managed to reach a point where almost complete elimination within their territory can be envisaged.
Renewed outbreaks are likely to happen, particularly while the virus remains in active circulation globally. But this does not invalidate the underlying suppress and eliminate strategy.
Key policies to suppress and eliminate the virus include: a rapid and decisive national lockdown to reduce the disease to levels low enough for test, trace and quarantine systems to identify and suppress local outbreaks; social distancing measures for a limited period or in a specific locality to limit spread while, as far as possible, minimising economic impact; and effective quarantine and track systems applied at borders to prevent the disease from being re-introduced by non-essential travellers and returning nationals.
The precise form of these policies is evolving rapidly as we learn more about the virus. For example, if there is a need today to stop a rapidly escalating epidemic in a given territory, it won’t necessarily mean adopting exactly the same package of lock down measures across the board as were applied three months ago. Several activities had to cease then simply because the virus was spreading so fast there was no time to put in place effective mitigation measures. This does not have to be repeated.
In addition, the benefits of the widespread use of face masks are now much better understood. As is the value of deploying a battery of measures, each one only partially effective on its own but, in combination, with a decisive impact. Financial support measures may need to be adjusted or extended to underpin local lockdowns and, at any given point, the authorities will need to work within an overall budget for relaxation measures and prioritise - getting pupils back in school may mean holding back easing of restrictions elsewhere.
Choosing an effective strategy inevitably means making tough choices. Delaying short-term recovery measures, even by a matter of weeks in whole economies or specific localities, can make a decisive difference to delivering a long-term sustainable economic outcome. The authorities may also be forced to hold back some economic sectors, possibly even leading to permanent damage, as the price of a general recovery. But if we are not ready to make these choices, the economy may become permanently stuck in a halfway house between lockdown and recovery.