Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Nation with strictest lockdown has most deaths

by George J. Dance

Which country has the most deaths per capita from (or with) COVID-19? The current frontrunner is San Marino, with 42 deaths in a population of 33,000 for a death toll of 1,237 deaths per million (1,237/M). That figure is actually exceeded by four U.S. states – New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut – but, those not being countries, none of them appear on the world index.  

As for countries with at least 1 million inhabitants, the highest death toll belongs to Peru. In a population of 33 million (roughly the same as Canada), Peru as of September 1 has suffered over 29,000 casualties, for a death rate of 880/M. Yet Peru had one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Nor did it lock down "too late" (as lockdown advocates claim about Britain), or reopen "too early" (as they claim about the United States.) 

Peru's government locked down the country on March 16 (before New York or California), when there were less than a hundred cases and zero deaths. Its lockdown was one of the strictest in the world. Most residents were allowed to leave home only to buy food or receive medical attention. The country's borders were closed, and Lima's international airport shut down. Private vehicles were banned from the streets, and masks were made made mandatory in public.  The government also imposed an 8 p.m. curfew, and actively arrested violators.  

The lockdown was an immediate success, politically. President Martin Vizcarra's approval rating, which was 52% in an Ipsos Peru poll on March 15, shot up 35 points to 87% in a follow-up poll a week later. The lockdown and curfew were even more popular than the president, with approval ratings of 95% and 96% respectively. 

The lockdown was less successful economically. The country's Gross Domestic Product dropped 3.5% by the end of March (compared with 2019), and a staggering 30.2% by the end of July. Peru’s hospitality industry contracted almost 90%, construction by 67%, the retail sector by 45%, and the important mining industry by 35%. The number of officially employed plunged by almost 40% across the country, and by almost 50% in urban areas. 

Nor did the lockdown control the virus, with the official death count rising to 150 per day by April 27 and remaining above 150 ever since. The actual number of deaths could be far higher: BBC News reported in July that Peru's deaths from all causes between March 16 and May 31 were 87% higher than normal. That failure is not surprising; the claim that a lockdown can stop a virus (as opposed to just slowing it down) was always a stretch. Even in the strictest lockdown, essential workers are still circulating, catching and spreading the germ. And even the nonessential population has to be allowed out sometime, if only to buy food. In Peru, where 40% of households do not even have a refrigerator (never mind internet access), that meant in-person trips to the local market virtually daily. 

Markets predictably became, in Vizcarra's words, "the main sources of contagion." "We had markets with 40, 50, 80% of sellers infected," he told the BBC. "You would buy, you would get infected, you would go home with the virus, and you would spread it to the whole family." (According to the Peruvian National Household survey, 12% of the people live in overcrowded homes.) The government's attempt to solve the problem – limiting shopping hours – only made things worse by increasing crowding in the markets, says Peruvian social researcher Rolando Arellano.

Even the relief program the government set up to mitigate the lockdown's damage helped spread the coronavirus. With less than 40% of Peruvians having a bank account, digital payments were impossible, and massive lineups formed at the banks where the relief money was distributed.           

Hospitals were overwhelmed, giving rise to a thriving black market in oxygen as desperate people tried to nurse their relatives at home.

The state of emergency was planned to run until the end of August. However, by June 30, with the virus still slowly ripping through the population, and the economy near total collapse, the Vizcarra government began allowing some businesses to reopen (though full lockdowns were maintained in four states). The mining industry quickly bounced back, reaching pre-pandemic production levels by September. However, COVID-19 cases and then deaths also began ticking up, to which the government responded by cracking down again. A total Sabbath lockdown was imposed in August, and police and military began patrolling the cities on Sundays, arresting more than 1,000 people for simply being on the street.

On August 29, the Vizcarra government extended the state of emergency, along with the lockdowns and curfew, until the end of September. It is possible that cases and deaths will stop rising by then – both seem to fall off when about 20% of the population is infected, with or without a lockdown – in which case we will probably hear (as we heard for New York) that the lockdown worked after all. For now, though, the country's death toll looks headed toward New York levels. 

Sources (all accessed Sep. 2, 2020):

  1. Pierina Pighi Bel and Jake Horton, "Coronavirus: What's happening in Peru," BBC News, July 9, 2020. 
  2. "Martín Vizcarra turns 57 with an approval of 87%," La Republica, March 22, 2020. 
  3. John Quigley, "Peru Leads Global Economic Crash With 30.2% Quarterly Drop," Bloomberg, August 20, 2020. 
  4. John Quigley, "Peru Now World’s Deadliest Covid Hot Spot," Bloomberg, August 27, 2020.
  5. Dave Lawler, "Peru now has world's highest coronavirus death rate," Axios, August 31, 2020. 
  6. Simeon Tegel, "The country with the world's strictest lockdown is now the worst for excess deaths," The Telegraph, August 27, 2020. 

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