Europe

Europe’s ‘stop-and-go’ COVID strategies ‘likely led to more deaths’

Australia, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea — all countries that used aggressive public health measures to try and eliminate COVID-19 infections — have had fewer deaths and better economic outcomes than others, a new study has revealed.

The COVID-19 deaths per one million people in these five countries was 25 times lower than countries that opted to mitigate the virus spread instead of trying to eliminating it, the study published in The Lancet on Wednesday said.

Mitigation as a technique is the use of targeted measures aimed to protect healthcare systems instead of rapid strict lockdowns aimed at fully stopping community transmission.

“We have seen over the past year that those countries that acted preemptively and took swift action against local outbreaks were able to control the virus, while others were always at least one step behind,” said Professor Bary Pradelski with the French National Centre for Scientific Research and Oxford-Man Institute.

The researchers analysed COVID-19 deaths, gross domestic product (GDP) growth, and lockdown restrictions during the first 12 months of the pandemic for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, they said.

They qualified, however, that “although all indicators favour elimination”, the analysis “does not prove a causal connection” between pandemic response strategies and outcomes.

OECD countries using targeted restrictions towards mitigating the virus, such as many EU countries, also had more economic woes, the researchers from France, the UK, Switzerland, and Spain said.

“GDP growth returned to pre-pandemic levels in early 2021 in the five countries that opted for elimination, whereas growth is still negative for the other 32 OECD countries,” the researchers wrote in their analysis.

In a statement, researchers criticised a “stop-and-go” approach to lockdowns.

“The stop-and-go strategy is detrimental for long-term economic growth because it prevents firms from long-term planning. Instead of investing in innovation, they accumulate cash to face the next lockdown. Instead of investing in skills, they hire on a short-time basis,” said Professor Philippe Aghion an economist and professor at the Collège de France and at INSEAD.

They also said that civil liberties appeared to be more severely impacted in OECD countries that opted for mitigation strategies than those who opted for elimination. This was based on a “stringency index” developed by researchers at the University of Oxford.

Swift lockdowns, meanwhile, were of a shorter duration, the researchers said.

“Evidence suggests that countries that opt for rapid action to eliminate SARS-CoV-2—with the strong support of their inhabitants—also better protect their economies and minimise restrictions on civil liberties compared with those that strive for mitigation,” the researchers say in the study.

Many of the researchers who published the study have argued in favour of a zero COVID strategy.

They also say that relying solely on vaccination is not enough to control the spread of COVID-19 due to the emergence of new variants and questions about the duration of immunity from vaccination.

The World Health Organization and other public health experts have also called on countries to opt for driving down infection rates before reopening.

Many have criticised EU countries following mitigation strategies for reacting only when it’s too late, forcing them to implement strict lockdowns.

But others point out that, in European countries, an elimination strategy could be more difficult to implement due to the land borders and cross-border workers.

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