An extensive French study has surveyed nations’ responses to COVID-19 and concludes that those taking an aggressive “Zero COVID” approach fared better than others by both health and economic measures.
The study rests its analysis in part on the experience of Canada, where six large provinces face steeply rising infection rates tied to evolved variants of the virus, while provinces and territories that hewed closer to the Zero COVID approach do not.
Zero COVID, also called Go for Zero or elimination, employs a range of tactics designed to drive infection rates to negligible. Such tactics include one hard serious lockdown followed by strategic testing, active surveillance and tight border controls.
Canada’s experience fits patterns identified in the study released this week by the Paris-based Institut économique Molinari that compared the performance of nations representing 82 million people since the beginning of the pandemic.
“The countries applying the Zero COVID strategy have experienced far less social and economic deterioration than other countries,” summed up the report.
The reason: “Participation in economic and social life is a function of people’s confidence in being able to take part without running the risk of falling ill, contaminating others or seeing health services overwhelmed.”
By almost every measure, nations that decided to eliminate the virus have achieved better results. “They are seeing significantly fewer deaths, their economies are performing more strongly, and their people are not held back to the same degree by mobility restrictions, whether voluntary or mandatory. Nor have they had to cancel other medical treatment.”
In contrast, nations that pursued mitigation programs are now battling variants that are more lethal and contagious with a variety of “circuit breakers” and “emergency brakes.”
These variants, which have only exploded in six Canadian provinces with mitigation policies, limit a government’s abilities to “relax restrictions in view of higher disease and mortality within the mitigation framework, leading to even higher accumulation of economic costs,” says the report.
Three distinct responses
Since the beginning of the pandemic, authorities have responded with three distinct responses to a novel coronavirus that not only kills one per cent of people who show symptoms, but cripples millions more with chronic disabilities known as Long COVID.
Much of Europe and North America and Canada’s six most populous provinces chose to limit the spread of the virus with a cycle of openings and closures in order to not overwhelm their hospital systems — an approach called mitigation.
With the exception of Iceland, Norway and Finland, not one European country has managed the pandemic well by global standards, the report concludes.
In contrast, Australia, New Zealand, much of East Asia including China, Taiwan, Vietnam, as well as Atlantic Canada and three northern territories, opted for elimination — the same strategy used in the global fight against smallpox and measles.
In other parts of the world, such as Brazil and Mexico, leaders chose a third option by virtually doing nothing and letting the virus spread. These nations have experienced some of the highest mortalities and incubated more lethal variants.
Compared to France, nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and China that went for elimination are much better off, the study says.
They have experienced less economic decline, showed better health outcomes, supported higher rates of mobility and experienced less uncertainty and enjoyed far more flexibility in dealing with the pandemic and its effects over time.
In the fourth quarter of 2020, for example, countries that successfully applied the elimination strategy “had almost returned to normal economic activity.” But during that period France was shutting down.
Nations that adopted Zero COVID also saw their GDP decline by 1.2 per cent, while countries that didn’t eliminate the virus experienced GDP declines of 3.3 per cent.
“Where the elimination strategy is implemented, the end of the tunnel becomes predictable, and it is then possible to make reliable long-term plans, resulting in stronger economic performance and lower mortality,” explains the report.
On the mitigation see-saw
Like many G10 nations, France has seesawed back and forth from closings and openings with the hope of not overloading its hospitals.
Six of Canada’s most populous provinces including Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have essentially trod the same path of mitigation for more than a year. All are now battling a fierce new wave affecting younger people.
In contrast, early in the pandemic, New Zealand imposed a strict lockdown to eliminate the virus. There has been no second or third wave in New Zealand.
As Canada’s experience illustrates, the implications of the two policies for ordinary people have been profound, said the report.
It found that half of Canada, which adopted a rigorous elimination approach, has fared much better than Canada’s most populous provinces — generally led by premiers who have emphasized impacts on the economy over the other considerations.
In provinces and territories that worked at eliminating the virus, traffic in restaurants and bars and cafés, for example, declined by only 21 per cent this year as the variants emerged.
In contrast, traffic declined by 42 per cent in the mitigation provinces, according to Google data.
“Canada thus benefits from a pilot test area that shows the superiority of the Zero COVID strategy and its feasibility in a democratic continental country,” notes the report.
The lingering cost of ‘half-measures’
The Canadian data “suggest that the French strategy, consisting of sustained efforts to mitigate the virus without eradicating it, stems from a miscalculation, insofar as it does not provide for a return to a near-normal situation.”
The high economic and mental cost of one effective lockdown as opposed to half measures “is not lasting when they help eradicate the virus and remove the restrictions on people and economies on a sustainable basis,” added the report.
“Meanwhile, the beneficial nature of curfews and other half-measures fades away when we see that they extend over time, multiplying the economic and social costs, as is the case today in France.”
As other experts and economists have repeatedly noted, the prevalence of the virus remains a significant predictor of individual participation in social and economic life.
After restrictions were lifted in B.C., Alberta and Ontario earlier this year the virus continued to spread, postponing the possibility of a full recovery and locking these provinces into a pandemic see-saw.
Mitigation also programs nations for long-term failure, warns the report: “From a tactical standpoint, the countries that have opted for a mitigation strategy, whether voluntarily or tacitly, have continued to suffer from deaths and economic setbacks.”
“At this stage, everything depends on their ability to vaccinate people quickly and on a massive scale. The last few weeks have shown that this process is not as simple as expected.”