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Are We Succeeding in Managing the Pandemic?

08 FEBRUARY, 2022
AER Public Insights
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A few weeks ago, the weekly magazine 'The Economist' analysed political decisions on the epidemic, measuring the behavior of variables such as GDP, investment, disposable income, and the increase in public debt in 23 advanced economies. This analysis concluded that Spain was the country with the worst performance during the crisis (23rd in the ranking)*.

Considering updated data, on Friday 28 we learned that in 2021 Spanish GDP had grown by 5% as compared to 2020, when GDP had fallen by 10.8% (prompted by the pandemic). In other words: real GDP is 4 percentage points away from recovering to its pre-covid levels (fourth quarter of 2019). Compared with other countries, US GDP is already three points above the pre-pandemic level, France one point above, and Italy and Germany about one point below.

In other words, the Spanish economy has underperformed compared to other western countries. Part of the reason for this poorer performance is its more cyclical nature, which is highly dependent on the services sector – especially hospitality and tourism industries, segments that are especially affected by the pandemic. On the other hand, the unwillingness of political systems (and voters) to reduce structural deficit restricted the country’s fiscal capacity to tackle the covid-19 crisis, unlike in countries such as Germany (thus supporting the moral lesson of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper). The British publication did not reflect these factors in its analysis, although they are relevant. However, there is room for improvement.

Moreover, ‘The Economist’ analyses measured excess mortality over 100,000 inhabitants to understand the extent to which a country has succeeded in managing the pandemic. This second analysis is interesting, as decisions to constrain economic activity often have positive effects on the healthcare situation and vice versa, so the key is to find the optimal balance in order to protect the population while minimising economic damage. Spain has 249 excess deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, France, 137, Germany, 143, Italy, 289, and the USA, 324. That is to say, Spain’s health situation is better than Italy’s, much better than the USA’s, and significantly worse than France’s and Germany’s. However, all four economies have fared better than Spain’s. **

Preventive measures against covid and economic activity are closely intertwined. For example, in the US, the debate on this link has, in my opinion, shifted towards emphasising economic growth, which explains the increased GDP and poor medical data. Decisions on the scope of restrictions must be made whilst bearing in mind their impact on the health and economic situation, and according to the severity of the dominant variant. As will be discussed below, Omicron is more contagious but causes fewer hospitalisations than Delta.

If Omicron’s epicentre was in South Africa, its spread to Europe began in the UK and Denmark. Both countries have announced the lifting of restrictions. Denmark will cancel them altogether, and England (health management is autonomous from Scotland and Wales) has stated that masks will no longer be compulsory in shops and on public transport (in addition to outdoors) and that it will no longer require a vaccination passport to enter shops. Sweden, Norway, and Finland have also announced that they will largely relax restrictions straight away.

The medical rationale behind these measures is that the high transmissibility of Omicron has existed simultaneously with a lower amount of hospital and ICU use. In other words, the percentage of infected people requiring hospital and ICU treatment is lower than in other waves. This can be explained by vaccine immunity against hospitalisation (especially by T-cells), by natural immunity (having been previously infected may not protect from a new infection, but it does prevent hospitalisation in many cases), or by a combination of both (hybrid immunity). Furthermore, several studies show that, even excluding these factors and age, Omicron is less dangerous than other variants in terms of hospital admissions and therefore lethality. Moreover, as Omicron appears to cause less damage to the lungs, the need for ventilators is much more limited. Finally, the lethality of Omicron appears to be significantly lower than that of Delta and is close to that of standard flu, accelerating the transition from pandemic to endemic, as noted by the World Health Organisation.

This is why many countries are relaxing restrictions. In light of the current situation, it is worth reflecting on Spain's past and future decisions. Delaying the administration of boosters was an obvious mistake. The legal framework for lockdowns was unconstitutional. Urgently enforcing the compulsory use of face masks in the street by issuing a decree law –  quaint – knowing that transmission occurs mainly indoors. Public management of the pandemic (and this affects all central and regional administrations) could have been better, as could have the economic results.

Unfortunately, society has been lethargic in response. The key lies in the decisions that are being taken from now on.

As the saying goes, if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. Deaths and GDP in the covid-19 crisis can be measured. And we can conclude that Spain has managed the pandemic less effectively than its neighbours. We must ask for accountability.

* “Which economies have done best and worst during the pandemic?”, January 1, 2022

** “Tracking covid-19 excess deaths across countries”, January, 28 2022

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