In March, when Covid-19 began to rear its ugly head across the western world, national policy responses differed widely.
- Denmark was the first European country to go on full lockdown, before the virus even really emerged in the country. As soon as news broke that Italian hospitals were being overwhelmed, Denmark shut its borders (in defiance of European Union laws), and shortly after, on March 11th, confined its population at home. Within two months, however, by May 11th, the Danish authorities gave shops, restaurants, bars, sports clubs etc. the green light to reopen.
- France imposed possibly the most stringent lockdown in the western world. For two months, French citizens were only allowed to leave their homes for essential shopping—and only within a limited radius. Anyone stopped on the street had to produce a pass showing the time of departure from home, with no one allowed outside for more than an hour.
- Sweden, in contrast, argued that lockdowns were a medieval response to the health problem. Instead of cowering behind closed doors, communities should look to build “herd immunity”. An economic shutdown would trigger other problems (suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse etc.) while locking people inside their homes could also trigger longer term difficulties (child abuse, domestic violence etc.).
- Switzerland, like Sweden, never embraced the dramatic lockdowns imposed by other European countries, preferring to trust individual citizens to do the “right thing”. Heavy social pressures and public campaigns meant that most elderly stayed at home, even though it was not mandatory.
- In the US, the federal structure of government meant that the responses varied greatly between regions, from lockdowns in New York, to full freedom in Arkansas. These different policy choices carried different economic costs. In the second quarter of 2020, Sweden (usually one of the more volatile OECD economies given its integration into the global industrial supply chain and its limited domestic consumer base) outperformed all other OECD countries. Unsurprisingly, France delivered the worst economic performance, its GDP falling by almost a fifth. But the declared priority in France, as in other countries that embraced full lockdowns, was to save lives; the government always acknowledged that such altruistic behavior would have economic costs. In short, President Emmanuel Macron, like many other policymakers around the world, accepted the certainty of massive economic loss for the chance of saving an indeterminate, but potentially large, number of lives.