During the weeks of lockdown in the UK, the Government has talked about the balancing act between saving lives and saving the economy. But is it right to talk about these two things as if they are completely separate? In this blog, Dr Juan Manuel del Nido explores the interdependency between lives and the economy, and how the UK can learn from experiences in Argentina.
- Current policy conversations about COVID-19 in the UK tend to focus on the idea that responses will effect either lives or the economy, and that they must be managed jointly.
- The collapse of the economy in Argentina in 2001 clearly shows that damage to the economy costs lives.
- Lockdown itself is also costing lives, as rates of domestic violence increase globally and the number of domestic killings has doubled in the UK.
- Reframing the political narrative around lockdown would show the costs to life and also help prepare the public for the potential surge in COVID-19-related deaths when the lockdown is lifted.
The UK’s ruling class has framed the lifting of the lockdown as a balancing act between ‘lives’, a proxy for COVID-19’s strictly organic impact, and ‘the economy’, a proxy for the allegedly purely material consequences of the lockdown. Some among the establishment have attempted to reframe lockdown public debate by insisting that resulting economic destruction will also impact life: internal governmental reports warn up to 150,000 lives could be lost as a consequence of the lockdown itself, due to anything from children going unvaccinated to cancers going undiagnosed. Yet a sort of fundamental division between lives and the economy continues to be taken for granted; recent declarations from members of cabinet that lifting the lockdown too early would jeopardise both ‘lives’ and ‘the economy’ still presume that these are different things that need to be managed jointly. Any insistence on lifting the lockdown takes on a morally toxic tone, an increasingly thorny position since the public revelation of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s report on the catastrophic impact of the lockdown on British life.
Experiences in Argentina
Political, cultural and economic differences aside, and irrespective of the particulars of epidemiological modelling, Argentina’s dealing with the lockdown as a state policy offers a particularly urgent lesson for UK policymakers. Under immense pressure from a near-unified public opinion, on 20 March 2020 Argentina implemented a nationwide lockdown aimed at containing COVID-19. Like elsewhere, Argentine authorities insisted on the imperative to save as many lives as possible at any cost; but that narrative was quickly subsumed under a cross-party, general, vocal and mainstream reframing of the dichotomy of ‘lives vs. the economy’ as one of ‘lives vs. lives’. This was a work done by the ruling political class and it afforded Argentine authorities a political, economic and rhetorical leeway out of the depths of the lockdown – and its popularity.
When Argentina’s economy collapsed in 2001, 25% of national GDP was wiped out virtually overnight. The following years saw a marked increase in suicide rates, strokes and hypertension. Also, in one of the first studies ever of its kind in the world, the Favaloro Foundation and the University of Massachusetts estimate the stress over pauperisation and the destruction of jobs and livelihoods led to an extra 20,000 deaths by heart attack. The Pan-American Health Organisation reports the degradation of public services increased inequalities, child poverty, malnutrition and deaths across all age groups from treatable diseases for years. Argentines intimately know that ‘the economy’ is quite literally about lives, a lesson unique for its magnitude in world history that public policy in the UK would gain to learn from.
Along different lines but with the same purpose, Argentine intellectual Diana Maffía recently made the case that for years now the WHO has considered gender-based violence also a pandemic – one that the lockdown is severely worsening, according to evidence from Argentina and the rest of the world, leading to death and severe and long-lasting mental health issues. Argentine national and provincial governments created ways to except women and children at direct risk of domestic abuse from lockdown rules as a result (as well as residents in the autistic spectrum and other different abilities), but the crucial point here is the success these interventions have in visibilising the lockdown itself as a direct threat to life. Similarly, authorities made a point of drawing attention to the fact that lockdown is exponentially increasing cases of dengue, considerably more serious and deadly than most estimates of COVID-19’s impact. Again, beyond the specifics of diseases which do not exist in the UK, the point is that such approaches help create an urgently needed more complex understanding of the lockdown’s impact to the lives it was set up to save.
Reframing the lockdown conversation
Some of this work is already being done in the UK: earlier this month, the project Counting Dead Women reported that domestic killings have doubled during lockdown in the UK. But Westminster stakeholders are not incorporating these findings in a sustained, public policy exercise of reframing what the lockdown is and what it does to life. Lastly, it is worth noting that the narrative work of reframing the lockdown as a matter of life in Argentina did not hinge on challenging the seriousness of COVID-19, simply on emphasising the threat to life of the lockdown itself, shifting the debate from a simplified either-or take.
These rhetorical strategies are all the more urgent in the UK to prepare public opinion and political debate to the fact that any lifting of the lockdown is likely to be linked to a surge in COVID-19-related deaths. The case to make is the lifting will save lives from the lockdown. Argentine evidence shows that reframing the terms of public debate would allow UK policymakers not just to find the ways to ease the lockdown, but to persuade a population highly in favour of it that neither the moral nor the public health case for it are as straightforward as they seem now.
Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.
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