COVID-19 Stringency Across Nations: When is a Lockdown not a Circuit-Breaker?

Danny Quah
5 min readApr 9, 2020

In this 03 Apr 2020 chart from The Economist describing government responses across countries to COVID-19, observers will be concerned that India is distinguished in two ways.

First, India is close to the bottom in providing fiscal stimulus to combat its slowing economy. Second, it is at the very top in Stringency Index — a composite measure of, among other things, school closings and travel restrictions, and thus of obstacles to value-adding market activity generally. These two are a double negative shock to the Indian economy.

But consolation, right? Even if India can’t afford fiscal stimulus, it’s doing the best it can against COVID-19 in adopting the world’s most stringent lockdown measures.

Sadly, however, no. There is no such reprieve: The reality for India is worse than the chart suggests.

Seven indicators are added to make up the Stringency Index: school closings, workplace closings, public event cancellation, public transportation closing, public information campaigns, restrictions on internal movement, and international travel controls. These all sound sensible to include in a Stringency Index. Moreover, it is easily verified that India is taking harsh steps on all these dimensions.

From where I sit in Singapore, we are lucky enough to see how tightening of these rules — in short, stringency — can indeed operate as a circuit-breaker to reduce rising infection. The extra time gained means that scientists have a better shot at coming up with vaccines or other solutions. It means that a nation’s healthcare system stands a chance of not being overwhelmed. Stringency, like social distancing more generally, is not a permanent cure for the pandemic; it simply gives the best of society time to help all of society.

Despite tropes about how (East Asians generally but in particular) Singaporeans preternaturally follow rules, or that Singapore is so small, of course the place is easily manageable, social distancing comes naturally to no one. Singapore too faces social behaviour that tests the limits of its national restrictions. For successful social distancing, we needed beyond stringency, constant credible communications. Transparency and forward guidance matter: Ahead of the national circuit-breaker being put in place, Singaporeans were given three days to prepare.

Prime Minister Lee went on TV, Friday 03 Apr 2020, to announce the introduction of circuit-breaker measures after the weekend. He said the circuit-breaker was necessary to get ahead of what would otherwise be a trajectory of rising infection. He reassured viewers that, while most workplaces would be closed for a month, supermarkets and restaurants — among other essential services — would remain open. He said everyone should stay home but, provided safe-distancing held, people could go out to exercise in neighborhood parks, and to buy groceries and get takeaway meals from shops and food establishments.

In Singapore stringency means what it is supposed to mean: Circuit-breaking on COVID-19 transmission is the goal.

When we turn then to that Economist chart showing India on top of the Stringency scale, it is appropriate to ask, Is India putting in place better circuit breakers than elsewhere?

Arundhati Roy described in the Financial Times in early April what India’s lockdown meant:

“On March 24, at 8pm, Modi appeared on TV again to announce that, from midnight onwards, all of India would be under lockdown. Markets would be closed. All transport, public as well as private, would be disallowed.”

Four hours. That is how long India, a nation of 1.4bn people, was given to get ready for this lockdown. Eleven days before this, but a full 48 hours after the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic, India’s health ministry was still saying “not a health emergency”.

Roy said that lockdown then “worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things.” The BBC put it more starkly: In India “a lockdown to stave off a pandemic is turning into a humanitarian crisis”.

BBC News. 2020. “COVID-19: India’s Pandemic Lockdown Turns Into Human Tragedy” (30 Mar)

In Roy’s description “[…] Driven out by their employers and landlords, millions of impoverished, hungry, thirsty people, young and old, men, women, children, sick people, blind people, disabled people, with nowhere else to go, with no public transport in sight, began a long march home to their villages. They walked for days.”

“They knew they were going home potentially to slow starvation. Perhaps they even knew they could be carrying the virus with them, and would infect their families, their parents and grandparents back home, but they desperately needed a shred of familiarity, shelter and dignity, as well as food, if not love. [Then,] worried that the fleeing population would spread the virus to villages, the government sealed state borders even for walkers. People who had been walking for days were stopped and forced to return to camps in the cities they had just been forced to leave.”

“The lockdown to enforce physical distancing had resulted in the opposite — physical compression on an unthinkable scale. This is true even within India’s towns and cities. The main roads might be empty, but the poor are sealed into cramped quarters in slums and shanties.”

What did India’s government seek to achieve with its version of Stringency? What adjustments are now needed if saving the Indian people is no longer what is actually happening? India’s lockdown was no circuit-breaker. India’s high Stringency achieved the opposite of what Singapore’s did.

The Stringency Index is, indeed, rigorously a scaled sum of perfectly reasonable stringency indicators. My friends engaged in its construction are doing exactly the right thing in toting up lockdown measures being put in place around the world.

But the reader also needs to understand that the ways in which, in different places, Stringency is coming into being makes a world of difference for whether the Stringency Index can be viewed and judged as a policy measure against COVID-19.

It is circuit-breaking that nations need, not a draconian, high-Stringency lockdown.

Originally published at http://www.dannyquah.com on April 9, 2020.

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Danny Quah

Danny Quah is Dean and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.