Gigi Foster: The Great Covid Panic

Oct 26, 2021 | Announcements, News & Media

Professor of Economics, and author, Gigi Foster, to deliver Ramsay Lecture

Sydney, Tuesday 26 October 2021: As Australia opens up again, moving towards a new national approach of ‘living with COVID-19’, what can we learn from our experience of lockdowns and closed borders? Was our loss of freedoms worth it? Did lockdowns save enough lives, and enough hospital beds, to justify their impact on some of the most vulnerable members of our society?

To deliberate on these questions, the Ramsay Centre is proud to announce the next speaker in our Ramsay Lecture series – Gigi Foster – Professor of Economics at the University of NSW (UNSW) Business School, and co-author of the newly-released book, The Great Covid Panic: What Happened, Why, and What To Do Next.

In this seventh Ramsay Lecture for 2021, Professor Foster joins Centre CEO Professor Simon Haines in conversation, and tells him Australia succumbed to the global panic over COVID-19 in 2020.

She says that this panic led Australia to ignore our own pandemic management plans, which ‘sensibly did not call for wholesale lockdowns of healthy populations’. This led to ‘normal life – in which expected rights and freedoms were taken for granted’ being ‘replaced by a new society managed by a medical/ruling elite that promised but failed to deliver virus mitigation, all in the name of public health’.

‘There was no cost benefit analysis proving or at least estimating that lockdowns would deliver net benefits in terms of human welfare, in terms of human thriving,’ she says. ‘And at the same time we saw and knew the pain that was going to be created, that already had been created, and that would stay with us for years to come, from the actions we were taking. And that pain was going to be mainly felt by those who were initially already disadvantaged.’

Examining our COVID-19 response through an economic lens, as well as crowd psychology, political science and power dynamics, Professor Foster laments the recent intolerance of genuine debate and diverse perspectives. Creative solutions require representation from many more professions and disciplines; for example, Australia should consider ‘citizen juries’ to appoint top public servants and help formulate policy, she proposes.

Professor Foster wonders how successfully we will emerge from the past two years, saying that economically we have been propped up by the spending of wealthier citizens trapped at home, who would normally be spending more abroad. 

‘We have (also) accumulated a ginormous amount of debt, and damaged the education of our children, who have had their schooling disrupted: that will be with them their whole lives. We have created really negative habits in a lot of our workers, and we have babies and toddlers and small children who now think it’s dangerous to go to the playground and play with their friends. We’ve damaged people and that damage counts.’

Professor Gigi Foster is a Professor and Director of Education within the School of Economics at the UNSW Business School. She holds a BA in Ethics, Politics and Economics from Yale University, and a PhD in Economics from the University of Maryland. She works in diverse fields including education, social influence, corruption, lab experiments, time use, behavioural economics and Australian policy.  

In 2017 she was awarded an Australian Award for University Teaching (AAUT) Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning. In 2019 she was named Young Economist of the Year by the Economic Society of Australia. She regularly writes for both academic and popular press, and appears on TV and radio programs across Australia. She is co-host of The Economists, a talk-radioprogram, with Peter Martin on ABC Radio National.

Due to COVID-19, this Ramsay Lecture event is recorded. It will be available via our website as both a video and podcast from Thursday 28 October.

Media contact: Sarah Switzer 0407 816 098 /