Does Healthier Mean Wealthier? Measuring Countries' Economic Performance During the Pandemic
Governance

Does Healthier Mean Wealthier? Measuring Countries' Economic Performance During the Pandemic

An effective government response to COVID-19 doesn't necessarily correlate with economic gain

Workers wipe down doors at a train station during the coronavirus disease outbreak in Singapore on August 17, 2020.
Workers wipe down doors at a train station during the coronavirus disease outbreak in Singapore on August 17, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Has healthier meant wealthier throughout the COVID-19 pandemic? At first glance, the evidence is not as a strong as one would expect. Countries with fewer cumulative deaths have generally suffered less severe economic consequences as measured by real GDP growth, but the relationship is loose and there are many exceptions. In some countries that have struggled mightily to contain the spread of the coronavirus —including the United States, Brazil, and Sweden—the economy has been stronger than in places such as New Zealand, Germany, Singapore, and Japan that are celebrated for containing the pandemic. 

GDP Growth and Age-Standardized COVID-19 Death Rates

The picture changes when considering the effect of economic stimulus. Many nations have pumped billions of dollars (and in some cases, trillions of dollars) into their economies and incurred significant debt in doing so. When those stimulus payments are accounted for, the economic performances of nations that have struggled to control the spread of the coronavirus, such as the United States and Brazil, no longer look so favorable. The same is also true for public health success stories, in particular New Zealand. In general, the connection between economic growth and pandemic performance is weaker once one accounts for the contribution of stimulus.

GDP Growth Net Stimulus and Age-Standardized COVID-19 Death

We draw two insights from this analysis. First, a crude comparison between economic growth and mortality does not on its own resolve the debate on whether there is a trade-off for governments between economic performance and the public health measures necessary to keep their populations safe and healthy. The relationship is weak and, as previous analyses have noted, many factors influence COVID-19 death rates and economic growth. Nor do a country’s death rate and GDP growth reveal much about the underlying policy decisions made by its government about how to control the spread of the virus, save jobs, and protect vulnerable people and industries.

‘Good national performance did not save countries from the severe economic consequences of this pandemic’

A second, more important insight emerges from this analysis: effective public health responses did not save countries from the severe economic consequences of this pandemic. This has important implications for future pandemic preparedness initiatives.

World leaders have called the coronavirus pandemic a “once-in-a-century” crisis, but that does not safeguard us for another hundred years. Outbreaks of well-known and emerging infectious diseases occur regularly and could easily evolve at any time into the next epidemic or global pandemic. Outbreaks are inevitable but—to paraphrase Larry Brilliant—pandemics are not. Preparation matters, and if governments work together, they can adopt feasible measures to prevent future outbreaks from unnecessarily morphing into the next global crisis.

A doctor receives the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease vaccine at Havelhoehe community hospital in Berlin, Germany on January 14, 2021.
A doctor receives the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease vaccine at Havelhoehe community hospital in Berlin, Germany on January 14, 2021. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Remarkably, the response to this global crisis has been almost entirely national. Little international cooperation and coordination has occurred at the Group of Seven, Group of Twenty, or the United Nations Security Council. National governments closed borders, hoarded medical supplies, and competed to develop a vaccine, a pattern that persists even after scientists have delivered highly effective ones. A handful of wealthy nations have spent billions of dollars locking up early supplies of the most promising novel coronavirus vaccines for their own use.

Yet, the early economic lessons of this pandemic suggest that political leaders going it alone do so at their nations’ peril. Governments seeking to protect themselves from pandemic threats will not find that protection, particularly economically, from building a stronger national fortress.

People wait at a a coronavirus testing center at the Berlin Brandenburg airport, as EU countries begin closing their doors to travelers from the United Kingdom amid alarm about a rapidly spreading strain of coronavirus, in Schoenefeld, Germany
People wait at a a coronavirus testing center at the Berlin Brandenburg airport in Germany, as EU countries begin closing their doors to travelers from the United Kingdom on December 21, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Thomas J. Bollyky is director of the Global Health program and senior fellow for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).


Sawyer Crosby is a data analyst on the Resource Tracking team at the University of Washington's Institute for Heath Metrics and Evaluations (IHME).


Joseph L. Dieleman is an associate professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.


Samantha Kiernan is a research associate on global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Most Popular

Related