Lockdown promotes inequality, a UJ-led team writes in The Lancet journal

In a hard-hitting letter published recently in top medical journal The Lancet, a team led by The Institute for the Future of Knowledge (IFK) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) argues that the lockdown has deprived vulnerable groups such as women and children access to numerous resources and put them at serious risk of malnutrition and other disease, for the sake of those much better off than themselves.

“It is unhelpful to characterise ‘lockdown skepticism’ as a neoliberal political stance. Lockdown is demonstrably not egalitarian in either its costs or its benefits. We must assess lockdowns and other measures holistically, remembering that the costs will mostly fall, as ever, on the global poor,” said Prof Alex Broadbent, UJ’s Director of the Institute for the Future of Knowledge, who led the analysis.


The authors were reacting to an editorial in The Lancet, characterising those who question the wisdom of “suppression” strategies as “neoliberal”. The authors argue that COVID-19 deaths fall predominately among older populations, which are typically wealthier, while avoidable non-COVID-19 deaths (e.g. cancer deaths, child deaths from measles, women dying in labour) fall mainly among the poor.

In the letter published on 19 June 2020, the authors argue that in poor societies, when compared to targeted or moderate measures, lockdowns kill more people through disruption of health services and deprivation of livelihoods, and that these people are generally poorer than the people whose deaths lockdown avoids. At the bottom of the global pile, recession is not just a matter of having less: it is a matter of life and death. Overall, children are especially vulnerable to malnutrition and diseases of poverty—and especially not vulnerable to Covid-19.

“When we lockdown, we cause deaths in the developing world to prolong lives in the developed world. Too poor to weather the storm, and lucky to make it to adulthood (according to UNICEF, over 5 million children under age 5 years die annually, and according to UN World Population Prospects 2019 data, the median age in Africa is 19·7 years), those near or below the poverty line stand to benefit little from lockdown, but they bear the lion’s share of the cost.”

“We are disappointed by the false dichotomy implicit in the assertion that there “should be no trade-off between health and wealth”. The wealthy might profit from the economy, but the poor live by it,” explains Prof Broadbent.

This letter follows an earlier documentary on the plight of the global poor in lockdown, COVID on the Breadline, and a proposal for taking and assessing decisions of this kind presented in a report entitled A Framework for Decisions in a Post-COVID World.

The letter is published in The Lancet and is available here.

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