Lock-ins save lives, but at a cost

How well you live with being locked-in depends a lot on how well you lived before the pandemic. And what can be said of individual households can also be true on a larger scale: those parts of our society that were faring less well are left behind even more as extended lock-ins aggravate the problems of inequality and loneliness in our midst.  Frances Cowell reflects on the costs of lock-ins that do not show up in the daily statistics and how that toll affects two left-behind groups.

If one thing is clear about this pandemic, it is that restricting people’s movements reduces infection rates and therefore saves lives. But that is about all we know. We know little about how the virus is transmitted, by whom, how acquired immunity is acquired – if it is acquired at all, and why some people seem to be naturally immune. Worse, we know almost nothing about what lock-ins are costing, economically, but also socially and psychologically; only that the cost is high and is borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable amongst us.

Happy with my books

Depending on where you live and how you earn your living, you may be rather enjoying the freeze on commercial and social activity and the extra space and time it gives you. It may be forcing a rethink of your priorities that you didn’t know you needed. You may find that you are much more productive now you can work at your own pace without the stress and distraction of urban commuting and eternal meetings. Cleaner air, no crowds and more time with your family are, after all, why you take holidays; and you may be asking why you can’t work like this all the time.

If you are able to tele-commute, you retain your self-esteem and are meeting your financial obligations. Of course, if you have children, particularly young children, you also must attend to home schooling, which can be demanding, especially when mixed with a demanding job. But you are reasonably able to deal with the material to be taught because, in all likelihood, you have a decent education yourself.

If you are retired from a skilled occupation, you probably have a regular income, and are adept at using the internet and social media. The lock-in may have prompted you to find new ways to enjoy their company of your grand-children. You, too, may be thinking of ways to retain some of these benefits after the crisis has passed.

She who pays the piper doesn’t necessarily call the tune

 If, on the other hand, you are unskilled and your work demands face-to-face interactions, or you don’t have access to reliable internet connections and the gizmos needed to use them, then the disadvantages you laboured under before the pandemic have now been magnified.

If your face-to-face work is providing an essential service, then you are at higher risk of becoming infected, and hence ill, with the virus. The consequences for you and your family can be grave, for example, if you or they have pre-existing conditions. The risks are unknowable, non-negligible – and stressful.

If your job is not performing an essential service, then you may well have lost it. Now you have the stress of not being able to meet your financial obligations. Government assistance helps, to be sure, but is unlikely to plug the gap, and cannot compensate the stress of not knowing when you will ever be able to work again. And your work was probably never that well paid anyway, so any savings you have will not go far.

If you were never academically inclined and have to attend to home schooling, then you may struggle with that, so your children will be at a disadvantage relative to those whose parents have advanced education.

And what of the many older people who managed until now without the internet, either because they don’t have a reliable connection and the skills to use it, or simply because they prefer to meet their friends and family in person, taking a cup of tea or a tipple at the pub? Cut off from friends and family, they can be truly isolated. Social workers, unable to undertake home visits, can no longer help. What are these senior citizens to do? It cannot be surprising that some despair.

Whether working or retired, you are more disadvantaged by extended lock-ins if you did not benefit from post-secondary education and/or you lack reliable access to the internet. If you have children, they risk being disadvantaged for the rest of their lives.

If you are born to a household of modest means, your best avenue to a less modest future is through education, starting when you are very young. Children with pre-school education, from any background, have been shown, time and again, to benefit more from any subsequent education they may get. For poor households, this means also that their mother can go out to work, so increasing the household income and providing a positive role model to her children.

When a pandemic comes along and both deprives households of their income and their children of early education, the disadvantage they already laboured under becomes, well, locked-in. While both parents and children of wealthier households continue to thrive, poorer ones are left behind more than ever. While their parents struggle ever to get on top of their finances, a generation of youngsters underachieves its potential for the rest of their lives. Apart from the immorality of allowing that to happen, it is a senseless waste and a huge cost to all of society because a vast amount of talent goes untapped.

How lethal is Covid-19, really?

You often read that the numbers of casualties reported are understatements because they count only those who tested positive for the virus before they died and ignore those who died of the disease without being tested. They also ignore indirect casualties, such as those who died for want of treatment for another condition, as well as victims of the locked-in itself, such as victims of domestic violence and deaths of despair, prompted by extreme financial worries, loneliness and drug and alcohol abuse.

Another way of estimating the toll of Covid-19, both direct and indirect, is to compare recent death rates to comparable periods in years where death rates were not affected by crises, extreme weather conditions or other natural disasters. Studies of this kind, in most countries where they have been carried out, report much higher rates of death for the first months of 2020. These “excess” deaths doubtless include many direct victims of the pandemic – but also an unknown number of indirect casualties – including victims of the lock-ins themselves.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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