Is the Economic Disruption from Anti-Social Distancing Really Worth It?

This is really an unfair question, because it requires people to decide whether saving large numbers of lives is worth the economic disruption which comes from lock downs and anti-social distancing. I have decided to call it anti-social, rather than social, because social implies interactions, which is the opposite of what is going on. The question remains the same regardless of what you call it.

Leaving the question to moralists, and economists, and ethicists, and social scientists, I wondered whether locking down a society could be directly related to significant reductions in the loss of life. Fortunately, this is a much easier a question to answer. Because we actually have four separate nations, with populations ranging from 5.4 million on the low side to 10.1 million on the high side, which actually are in the same region on the globe. Sweden, with a population of 10,089,623 at last count; Denmark, with a population of 5,789,012; Norway, with a population of 5,414,714; and Finland, with a population of 5,540,720. Thus Denmark's population is 57% of Sweden's population; Norway's population is 49% of Sweden's population; and Finland's population is 55% of Sweden's population.

But in order for the inquiry to work, there would have to be three out of the four nations which locked down, as well as one nation which serves as a kind of control group -- a nation that decided to leave everything as it was, with no economic disruption, no closing of schools, no closing of restaurants and bars, no closing of shops and churches. And as it turns out, Sweden is the perfect control nation, because it decided to leave everything as it was, and the other three imposed strict lock down measures. Fortunately, the three that locked down did it almost simultaneously: Norway on 03/12, Denmark on 03/13, and Finland on 03/16. So with three nations that imposed strict lock downs, and one nation that left everything the way it was, it is fairly easy to find out the human cost, at least, of these decisions.


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    And the results indicate that locking down a society has a fairly huge impact on the number of cases of COVID-19 in each nation, as well as a fairly huge impact on the number of deaths from COVID-19 in each nation. All of these numbers, by the way, are from the data collection website Worldometers, gathered on May 7, 2020. The data no doubt changes daily, with larger numbers of cases and deaths, but it is a valid snapshot of data for this purpose.

    In the control society of Sweden, which had no economic disruption, there have been 24,623 recorded cases of COVID-19. In Denmark, which locked down on 03/13, there have been 10,083 cases, or 41% of the cases to date in Sweden. Adjusting for differences in population, it is clear that there are still fewer cases per capita in Denmark than in Sweden, about 4,000 fewer cases after adjusting for the population difference.

    The difference is about the same with Norway, which has had 8,015 recorded cases and which has 49% of the population that Sweden has. Adjusted for population, Norway also has 4,000 fewer recorded cases per capita than Sweden. And Finland has 5,673 recorded cases, which after adjusting for population reveals that Finland has about 8,000 fewer recorded cases per capita than Sweden.
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    The difference revealed by the number of deaths from COVID-19 in each nation is even more significant. Sweden, the no disruption control nation, has had 3,040 deaths. Denmark, with 57% of the population, has had 514 deaths from COVID-19, about 17% of the deaths in Sweden despite having 57% of the population. Norway, with 49% of the population of Sweden, has had 217 deaths from COVID-19, approximately 7% of the deaths in Sweden, despite having 49% of Sweden's population. And finally, Finland has had 255 deaths from COVID-19, about 8.4% of the number of deaths in Sweden, despite having 55% of Sweden's population.

    So there you have it. At some point some enterprising economist will look at the GDP figures for these four nations to see how each suffered economically with it's decision. Sometime in the future someone will actually calculate the economic cost of locking down a society to prevent uncontrolled deaths from a pandemic. But one thing is clear. Locking down a nation has real effects on the death rate from COVID-19. Those that locked down suffered far fewer COVID-19 cases, and even fewer deaths per capita, and in real numbers, than the nation that decided to keep everything open.

    I guess if you are Swedish, and your mother, or your father, or your brother or sister or aunt or cousin was one of those 3,040 who died because Sweden wanted to keep its beer halls and restaurants open, maybe you would wish that your politicians made different decisions. if on the other hand, a couple of thousand lives, more or less, out of a population of ten million, mean little when you can get your pickled herring and lager and sing Swedish songs as if everything is OK, then you don't mind sacrificing your aunt, whom you really didn't like anyway.
  • Today, 05/08/2020 Sweden recorded another 135 deaths from COVID-19. The other three countries experienced deaths in the single digits: Denmark with 8, Norway with 1, and Finland with 5.
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