Countries reliant on foreign trade implemented less strict lockdowns

December 15, 2020

A man sits at a restaurant in Milan, Italy, during the pandemic. (AP)

Strict lockdowns at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which may have helped curb spread in many areas, were less likely to be implemented in countries highly reliant on foreign trade, researchers found in a paper seeking to shed light on government response to the crisis.

A group of Italian and German researchers examined factors behind lockdown decisions in a paper published in the December issue of Economics Letters.  

“When you have an open economy, you have more difficulty implementing the strictest measures because you want to sell your products abroad,” said co-author Leonzio Rizzo, a professor of public economics at the University of Ferrara in northern Italy. 

Rizzo wrote the paper, titled “The ‘Great Lockdown’ and its determinants,” along with Massimiliano Ferraresi of the European Commission, Christos Kotsogiannis of the University of Exeter and Riccardo Secomandi of the University of Ferrara. The researchers examined data from January through April of 2020. 

Since the coronavirus was detected in different places at different times, researchers created a country-specific variable for 132 countries corresponding to each day after that nation detected its first 10 cases. They also created a lockdown stringency index for each country, assigning nations a score from 1 to 100 based on rules like whether residents could shop at stores or exercise outdoors. 

The researchers then contrasted those scores with six other variables based on World Bank Governance Indicators that corresponded to factors they believed may have affected lockdown timing and intensity. 

Countries with a higher “degree of openness” score -- a measure of an economy’s reliance on foreign trade trade and cross-border travel -- implemented lockdowns later and less intensely, the researchers found. 

Countries’ wealth and development also affected lockdowns. Those with higher gross national incomes were more likely to enforce strict lockdown measures, as were countries with higher levels of digitalisation that enabled remote work and more effective government communication. Other factors included political stability and the timing of elections.

“You can implement the most stringent measures in a more digitalized society,” said Rizzo. “You basically cannot lock down people when there are no digital devices for them to communicate.” 

In the political sphere, countries whose leaders were in a pre-electoral year when the virus hit were more likely to impose strict lockdowns. 

“When you’re in a pre-electoral year, you care more about your citizens,” said Rizzo. Countries with leaders who were not immediately contending for reelection had lighter lockdowns. 

The researchers then examined the level of democracy in each country, finding that the relationship between systems of government and virus levels was “a priori ambiguous.” However, countries with a higher political stability -- those known for orderly transitions of political power, low ethnic tensions and little political violence -- were more likely to implement strict lockdowns.

Northern Italy was one of the first European regions battered by the coronavirus and implemented some of the first strict lockdown measures outside Asia, sparking Rizzo’s interest in government lockdown policy. When he spoke to The Academic Times on Tuesday, he had recently completed a 10-day self-quarantine after his wife tested positive for COVID-19. 

Rizzo said that the early lockdown decisions in Italy were made by the national government, but that local enforcement was sometimes weak. 

“The problem is that the decisions are centralized, but then the measures are to be applied by individuals, so sometimes there’s a conflict between regions and the central government,” he said. 

In the U.S., the federal government largely left lockdown decisions to states. A regional patchwork of rules allowed the virus to spread more widely. 

Overall, the researchers found that nations with more centralized governments implemented stricter lockdowns. Rizzo said that a primary lesson policymakers should take from his work is that centralization is an important aspect of pandemic preparedness. 

After having studied the decision-making behind lockdowns, Rizzo said his next paper is going to focus on their effectiveness. He plans to study the relationship between nations’ stringency indices and their death rates. 

The authors of "The ‘Great Lockdown’ and its determinants" were Massimiliano Ferraresi of the European Commission, Christos Kotsogiannis of the University of Exeter, Riccardo Secomandi of the University of Ferrara and Leonzio Rizzo of the University of Ferrara. The lead author was Massimiliano Ferraresi. 

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