Prof. Paul Frijters

Professor of economics at London School of Economics Paul Frijters.
A top health economist has called for an urgent unwinding of lockdown rules born of "mass hysteria", saying the social and economic misery they cause has already destroyed the equivalent of more than 10 million lives.

As the global death toll from coronavirus heads towards 120,000, Paul Frijters, a professor of economics at London School of Economics, told The Australian "saving tens of thousands of lives" was "a drop in the ocean compared to the long-lasting disaster caused by economic collapse".

Professor Frijters, an Australian, estimates the loss of wellbeing "to be at least 10 million lives but probably closer to 50 million", based on his estimates for the ­deterioration in global wellbeing from isolation, unemployment and physical inactivity. "The biggest effect is through loneliness. We see anxiety rates going up an awful lot," he said.

Measures introduced by governments to slow the spread of coronavirus have divided economists. One US study suggested the government should be willing to spend up to $US65 trillion ($102 trillion) — about three times the US GDP — to save lives, given each life was worth $US9m.

"If we took that approach to every type of death we can have, we'd quickly run out of funds," said Gigi Foster, an economics ­professor at UNSW who believes many economists have "lost sight of the bigger picture". "What matters in these sorts of analysis is whether a life at 80 years old, beleaguered by multiple pre-existing conditions, is equivalent to a 20-year-old with their whole life left to live," she said.

Richard Holden, also an economics professor at UNSW, last week said critics of lockdowns were making "errors of staggering proportions ... They should be looking at the counterfactuals: New York or London, or Italy or Spain ... easing social distancing even a little could allow infection rate to bounce back dramatically."

Professor Frijters said the slowdown in infections were "pyrrhic victories ... there is no victory against a virus; it's either herd ­immunity or a vaccine".

Adam Creighton is an award-winning journalist with a special interest in tax and financial policy. He was a Journalist in Residence at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business in 2019. He's written for The Economist and The Wall Street Journal from London and Washington DC, and authored book chapters on superannuation for Oxford University Press. He started his career at the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority. He holds a Bachelor of Economics with First Class Honours from the University of New South Wales, and Master of Philosophy in Economics from Balliol College, Oxford, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar.