Guess which countries in Europe have had the lowest average restrictions on individual behaviour from March to December according to researchers at the Blavatnik school of government in Oxford? Guess which countries in the world have had the most or least stringent government restrictions? Hint: Sweden doesn’t make the top 5 of any list.
The Blavatnik researchers have put in a huge effort to compile an ongoing index of restrictions in all the countries of the world from January till now, counting such things as school closures, travel restrictions, bans on gatherings, and stay-at-home orders. They also look at economic and health policies, but I am here most interested in their findings on the stringency of government when it comes to the ability of people to socialise since that is the bit that most strongly affects wellbeing: enforced social distancing means enforced loneliness for many, leading to mental health issues, physical health issues, and the breakdown of social relations. It is a form of violence, particularly when kept up for months.
The table below show you the average Stringency index from March 1st to December 10th (or nearest to that date) for selected countries, adding the number of reported covid-deaths per million from the worldometer website on December 20th. It tells a few surprising stories.
|Stringency||C-death pm||Stringency||C-death pm|
The first surprise is the three countries with the lowest stringency of government restrictions: Burundi, Nicaragua, and Belarus. Equally surprising are the three countries with the highest restrictions: Honduras, Libya and Bolivia. All six are basically dictatorships or something close to it. What is going on?
The story of Libya is perhaps the instructive one: it is consumed by a civil war between rival warlords vying for control over the oil trade. It has no clear government in charge of the country. Yet, what passes for the government at a certain moment during the first wave declared the highest level of restrictions anywhere in the world (100%, ie their restrictions define the maximum of the index). The likely purpose had nothing to do with the virus but everything to do with trying to make organisation difficult for the opposing forces: if your opponents are dumb enough to socially distance and stay indoors, one meanwhile can organise one’s own forces to isolate them and shoot them. Something similar was probably going on in Honduras, which is also close to civil war.
Burundi, Belarus, and Nicaragua are also dictatorial, and they have had the worlds’ lowest level of restrictions. It is not entirely clear why, but my best guess is that in their case the governments were more worried that restrictions would hamper their own movements and economic fortunes.
Then Europe. What might surprise the reader is that Sweden is the country in Scandinavia with the highest average government restrictions in this period. How is that possible when Sweden is the reluctant poster-child for sensible covid policies in the whole world?
The story is a simple one: the other Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Norway in particular, had more stringent covid policies at the start (March/April) but repented. In the case of Norway, the health authorities literally repented and apologized to the population for needless restrictions. Meanwhile, in Sweden, the wish among the politicians to be seen to do something and fall in line with international expectations has created conflict with the low-restriction opinions of their health authorities headed by Anders Tegnell. The end result is that Sweden has in fact had higher average restrictions than any of its neighbours, though still lower restrictions than any of the more populous countries in Europe, and (thus) better economic and wellbeing outcomes. What is true, but not shown in the table, is that Sweden’s restrictions have been more stable than elsewhere.
Otherwise, the restriction levels in Europe are all over the place, with a middle-of-the-road rating for Belgium that has the world’s highest claimed covid death rate, and the highest average restrictions for the UK (just my luck!).
The next clear pattern in the data, which the Blavatnik researchers have written on extensively, is that the more covid deaths in a country, the higher the restrictions on average. The causality is largely in that order: when there are more measured covid-deaths, restrictions almost invariably increase, partly due to public pressure and partly because the deaths give governments an excuse to expand their control. Policies have not followed the science (which warns against the path followed and has failed to find any clear evidence for the effect of restrictions), but the need to be seen to do something.
Finally, there is the interesting issue of low average restrictions in much of East Asia combined with very few deaths: Taiwan’s restrictions are on a par with those of Tanzania. South Korea and Japan have similarly been light-touch in their restrictions relative to Europe and the Americas, probably because that whole region might have high levels of prior immunity such that they don’t get large waves of deaths that then lead to calls for more restrictions. Only China seems to have insisted on both high levels of restrictions alongside low levels of deaths, though one should be very suspicious of the statistics on either.