COVID elimination strategies saved economies as well as lives, say scientists

By on 29/04/2021
Countries that focused on eliminating COVID-19 performed better on health, economic and civil liberties measures, scientists say. Credit:Raysonho/Wikimedia

Countries that focused on eliminating COVID-19 performed better on health, economic and civil liberties measures compared with those that opted to mitigate the virus, a group of leading scientists has said.

“The trade-off between different objectives is at the heart of political decision making. Public health, economic growth, democratic solidarity, and civil liberties are important factors when evaluating pandemic responses,” the eight health specialists wrote in a comment piece for medical journal The Lancet on Wednesday.

“There is mounting evidence that these objectives do not need to be in conflict in the COVID-19 response,” they added.

The authors considered the response of OECD member countries during the first 12 months of the pandemic. They compared the performance of five countries that focused on eliminating the virus (taking “maximum action” to stop transmission as soon as possible) and those that opted for “mitigation” i.e. controlling cases so healthcare systems could cope.

The authors looked at performance across three indicators: COVID-19 deaths, GDP growth, and “the strictness of lockdown measures”. The writers include Devi Sridhar, a member of the UK Cabinet Office COVID-19 Advisory Group, and Jeffrey Lazarus, a member of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission Public Health Taskforce.

Balancing outcomes

In terms of health outcomes, COVID-19 deaths per one million of population were about 25 times lower in Australia, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea (countries that the authors say opted for elimination) compared with those that focused on mitigation, according to the analysis.

“There is also increasing consensus that elimination is preferable to mitigation in relation to a country’s economic performance,” the authors wrote. While GDP growth bounced back to pre-pandemic levels early this year in the five countries that focused on elimination, “growth is still negative for the other 32 OECD countries,” the article said.

While opponents of lockdown often point to moral and civil liberty concerns, the authors also argued that countries which acted firmly and quickly suffered fewer such intrusions.

“Among OECD countries, liberties were most severely impacted in those that chose mitigation, whereas swift lockdown measures — in line with elimination — were less strict and of shorter duration,” the article said.

Future warnings

The latest edition of the WHO’s international Pulse survey, published today, showed that the pandemic “continues to severely disrupt the delivery of health services” across the globe.

The pandemic remains far from over, the authors of the Lancet article warned. A reliance on vaccines to control the virus is “risky”, due to uneven roll-out and uptake, the length of time immunity lasts and the threat of variants, they argue.

There also needs to be a “global plan to exit the pandemic,” they add. “Countries that opt to live with the virus will likely pose a threat to other countries, notably those that have less access to COVID-19 vaccines.”

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