Social distancing measures in spring 2020 effectively curbed the COVID-19 pandemic in Germany

Newswise – Measures adopted in mid-March 2020 to contain the COVID-19 pandemic both significantly reduced the mobility of people and effectively prevented the spread of COVID-19 over the following three weeks. This is the result of a recent study carried out by an international team of economists led by Junior Professor Dr Emanuel Hansen at the Faculty of Management, Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Cologne and Professor Dr Ulrich Glogowsky at Johannes Kepler University in Linz (Austria). The results show how important the first policy measures were for the continuation of the coronavirus pandemic in Germany. The study was published in the open access interdisciplinary journal PLoS A.

In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading rapidly across Europe. After a first hesitation, the German government and the Conference of Prime Ministers of Federal States (Ministerpräsidentenkonferenz) decided in mid-March on a series of measures aimed at restricting social contact, including the closure of schools, daycares and shops. Even private meetings of people from different households were limited. German policymakers have thus implemented rapid and far-reaching contact restrictions. In the early stages of the first wave of the virus, masks were not yet mandatory. Neither vaccines nor rapid tests were available. In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 infections in the country have sharply declined, leading to a further gradual easing of contact restrictions from April 20, 2020.

Despite the rapid decline in infections in Germany, the effectiveness of contact restrictions has been challenged on several occasions, both by the public and by experts. In particular, it has been argued that even without the measures adopted, the spread of the virus would have been held back by automatic changes in people’s behavior.

To answer this controversial question, the team of authors led by junior professor Dr Emanuel Hansen estimated the causal effect of the policy measures using detailed figures from the Robert Koch Institute as well as anonymized movement data from private mobile phone providers from over 400 German countries. neighborhoods in a quasi-experimental analysis. The analysis exploits the fact that the first COVID-19 infections occurred in some districts before contact restrictions began, while in others they occurred much later. By comparing districts with early and late epidemics, the researchers estimated how citizen behavior and infection rate would have evolved in Germany without social distancing measures. The causal effect of all measures is therefore the difference between inferred hypothetical development without social distancing and actual development with contact restrictions in place.

On the basis of this analysis, the authors drew the following results: In a first step, based on mobile phone data, they found that policies actually reduced the spatial movements of people by 30% on average, such as they were supposed to do it. Secondly, they found evidence of effective containment of the pandemic: already in the first three weeks, contact restrictions in Germany prevented more than 80% of COVID infections and more than 60% of deaths that would have followed. In other words, the researchers estimate that there would have been around 500,000 more infections and around 5,400 more deaths had it not been for the German measures in early April alone. Further analysis shows that contact restrictions have significantly slowed the rate of infections in all population groups. However, in the over 60 age group, the rate of confinement was a bit lower than in younger people. Researchers see a plausible explanation for this in the fact that the closure of schools and daycares had a more direct and pronounced effect on children and their parents than on the generation of grandparents.

“The results of our study show that the first measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in Germany have been successful, contrary to repeated claims by parts of the public,” noted Emanuel Hansen. “Without these contact restrictions, Germany would likely have experienced an overload of the health care system, as some other European countries have.” With no other tools available in the early stages of the pandemic like vaccination or rapid tests, there was no viable alternative, Hansen added, despite the economic and social costs of closing schools. and businesses. The study focused exclusively on the first wave of COVID-19 in Germany and cannot conclude on the effects of policies in subsequent waves of the pandemic.

Junior Professor Dr Emanuel Hansen is a member of the Faculty of Management, Economics and Social Sciences at UoC, the Center for Macroeconomic Research (CMR) and the Center for Social and Economic Behavior (C-SEB).

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