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Are lockdowns justified? Evaluating the costs and benefits

7 December 2020

In several countries, lockdowns have reduced the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and thereby of deaths from COVID-19. Despite this, they have been controversial.  Some claim that they violate basic rights or freedoms.  This seminar will focus on a different objection: do the benefits of lockdowns outweigh the costs?  Asking that question leads to others: how do we compare loss of life with other harms suffered by a much larger number of people?  These include: loss of income; illness and death resulting from reduced attendances at regular health check-ups; reduced government revenue leading to fewer social and health care services; mental health problems associated with long-term unemployment and deprivation of opportunities to socialize; reduced educational opportunities for children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds; and increased extreme poverty in low-income countries caused by lockdowns’ impacts on the economies of high-income countries.  Even when counting deaths, should we give the same weight to deaths caused by COVID-19 – most of which are in those over 70 – as we give to deaths of younger people?

These questions are difficult, but if we do not try to answer them, how can we reach a rational assessment of lockdowns?