To lockdown, or not to lockdown – viewpoint from the number-crunchers

In this fascinating Webinar, a South African group that has been established to look at the human and economic costs of Covid-19 in South Africa, called PANDA, short for Pandemics Data & Analytics, this group is a collective of leading actuaries, economists, mathematicians, medical professionals, lawyers and businesspeople working to bring more data and analytics to the decision making table, highlight why they are “left wondering why anybody in their right minds would be talking up a story that involves anything more than 10,000 deaths for South Africa”.  This week’s Biznews Lunchtime webinar is focusing on the coronavirus lockdown, with Biznews editor-in-chief Alec Hogg hosting Ray Cadiz, a Beit scholar to Oxford and Harvard MBA who has created two major financial services businesses, has also been obsessed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Actuaries Peter Castleden and Nick Hudson, the co-authors of a report that they have handed to the Presidency, say South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown may cause 29 times more deaths in the long run than the virus. – Stanley Karombo

It’s all about the lockdown and the impact it’s having on the South African economy is an incredibly difficult balance to reach during this very difficult Covid-19 pandemic. However, there are clear signals about the direction that needs to be taken and perhaps in certain instances the direction that hasn’t been taken.

Actuary Peter Castleden says data & analytics organisation PANDA is urging the South African government to completely lift its strict coronavirus lockdown and allow some industries to reopen after several weeks of restrictions that plunged the struggling economy deeper into turmoil. 

Castleden believes that the media was causing unnecessary fear, anxiety, despondency and driving policy makers to implement measures that have a huge impact on lives and the social fabric of South Africa. 

His sentiments were echoed by PANDA’s coordinator and actuary Nick Hudson who says that the government’s mantra that the lockdown saves lives and that it is lives versus the economy is a false dichotomy. The actuaries say the continued lockdown would in the long run create poverty, which could be a bigger killer than Covid-19.  

Although Castleden admits that lockdown served its purpose to “flatten the curve”, it was not meant to stop the virus, but for government to prepare hospital beds, and now there was an urgent need to accelerate the restarting of the economy. He says there was every reason to believe a safe return to work will be successfully achieved provided people and business adhere to communicated protocols.

Hudson says he was fascinated with the tragedy unfolding on the Diamond Princess, the ship on which Covid-19 was wreaking havoc among the 3,700 passengers.

“As an actuary or an epidemiologist or somebody interested in the numbers, you say this is amazing, it’s going to save us months and months, possibly years in trying to reach an understanding of the virus because what it presents you with is a little closed population of people of varying ages and genders and nationalities… a snapshot of how this illness is going to behave,” Hudson says.

Looking at his spreadsheet he completed on March 9, he says he decided to himself that this disease was not going to be a very big thing and that that was probably the worst intellectual error he’s ever committed in his life. “But looking at this disease now that reaction was correct with respect to the disease and 100% incorrect with respect to the reaction. The panic that followed swept around the world faster than the virus and as lockdowns began even in countries that seemingly were not on a major threat, I became more and more concerned…. that there was a trap in this whole lockdown setup.”

Underscoring the panic, Castleden cited an announcement by Imperial College’s Covid-19 response team that their SEIR model (susceptible-exposed-infected-recovered) predicted the UK would suffer 500,000 deaths if stringent control measures were not undertaken. “Our conservative maximum had seen the UK at a level not higher than 70,000 and that’s when we realised that many people had missed the boat,” he says.

Hudson says it would be political suicide for any politician to lift the lockdown and then a surge in deaths occur as a result of this. So, the question is how do you get out of these things?

The pair say there are a lot of people working very hard for the sole purpose of trying to save South Africa from what they see as a very calamitous set of policy choices.

According to Castelden, the lockdown was doing more harm than good. “We set up the actuarial numbers and say, what is the economic damage?”

Castleden doesn’t believe South Africa’s Covid-19 death toll estimate of between 46,000 and 88,000 is correct.

Hudson says he would advise the South Africa government to move to a smarter lockdown, ending this very oppressive economic lockdown, and believes that it makes sense for children to go back to school.

Lockdown or no lockdown

As the government-ordered lockdown to suppress the rapidly spreading of the Covid-19 pandemic, more companies are resorting to cutting employees’ pay as an alternative to large-scale retrenchments. But Castleden says there is no need for a hard lockdown in places like the Western Cape where the coronavirus has almost reached its peak. 

The message from Western Cape is that the numbers have been rising from 2,500 per day to 4,000 per day on the back of a huge testing push. South Africa has 2.8% of cases to tests and a 1.7% mortality, which is great in comparison to other countries, he says.

Catleden says once this virus takes hold, emerging evidence from around the world says lockdown or no lockdown makes absolutely no difference. “So, if you are a small island nation and you just ban travel you’re not going to get anything, so that would be some form of lockdown that’s effective. But once it takes hold, there’s nothing to stop it, which kind of suggests the counter to what we’re talking about – a smart lockdown strategy of locking down harder when cases are heavier.”
By this logic, he says, for the Western Cape lockdown doesn’t help anymore , so actually Western Cape should be on Level 1, “because we’re riding the wave”.
He pitted this against a province that might have only 10 cases and suggested a travel ban from the Western Cape to this province and lockdown harder.

Castleden says it was important for the government to massively pursue a mandatory testing and tracing programme.

Cadiz says the lockdown and the depth of cuts in the economy are being underestimated and its accelerating. He notes that people are just afraid of the unknown amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Castleden believes that the impact of Covid-19 on the economy will be worse than the 2008 financial crisis.

The Thursday webinars are free and are designed to have the experts to answer the tough questions you’ve been trying to work through. All Biznews community members are welcome, but you do need to register.

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