This article was originally published by Ryan McMaken at The Mises Institute.
Although advocates for covid-19 lockdowns continue to insist that they save lives, actual experience keeps suggesting otherwise.
On a national level, just eyeballing the data makes this clear. Countries that have implemented harsh lockdowns shouldn’t expect to have comparatively lower numbers of covid-19 deaths per million.
In Italy and the United Kingdom, for example, where lockdowns have been repeatedly imposed, death totals per million remain among the worst in the world. Meanwhile, in the United States, states with the harshest lockdown rules—such as New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are among the states with the worst total deaths.
Lockdown advocates, of course, are likely to argue that if researchers control for a variety of other variables, then we’re sure to see that lockdowns have saved millions of lives. Yet research keeps showing us this simply isn’t the case.
The latest study to show the weakness of the pro-lockdown position appeared this month in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation, authored by Eran Bendavid, Christopher Oh, Jay Bhattacharya, and John P.A. Ioannidis. Titled “Assessing Mandatory Stay-at-Home and Business Closure Effects on the Spread of COVID-19,” the authors compare “more restrictive non-pharmaceutical interventions” (mrNPI) and “less restrictive non-pharmaceutical interventions” (lrNPI). More restrictive interventions include mandatory stay-at-home orders and forced business closures. Less restrictive measures include “social distancing guidelines, discouraging of international and domestic travel, and a ban on large gatherings.” The researchers compare outcomes at the subnational level in a number of countries, including England, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United States. This is then compared against countries with less restrictive measures, primarily Sweden and South Korea, where stay-at-home orders and business closures were not widely implemented.
We find no clear, significant beneficial effect of mrNPIs on case growth in any country….In none of the 8 countries and in none out of the 16 comparisons (against Sweden or South Korea) were the effects of mrNPIs significantly negative (beneficial). The point estimates were positive (point in the direction of mrNPIs resulting in increased daily growth in cases).
That is, the more restrictive lockdown measures pointed to worse outcomes.
This data suggests that the theoretical underpinnings of the lockdown philosophy are wrong. As summed up by Bendavid et al.,
The conceptual model underlying this approach is that, prior to meaningful population immunity, individual behavior is the primary driver of reductions in transmission rate, and that any NPI may provide a nudge towards individual behavior change, with response rates that vary between individuals and over time. lrNPIs could have large anti-contagion effects if individual behavioral response is large, in which case additional, more restrictive NPIs may not provide much additional benefit. On the other hand, if lrNPIs provide relatively small nudges to individual behavior, then mrNPIs may result in large behavioral effects at the margin, and large reductions in the growth of new cases.
Translation: mild measures encouraging caution on exposure to others probably lessen the spread. Therefore, more stringent measures will surely do an even better job of limiting the spread!
But this doesn’t appear to be the case. Rather, the authors suggest those areas with lower covid mortality are areas where the public pursued low-hanging fruit in terms of slowing the spread. This included canceling large, crowded events and limiting travel. More stringent requirements on top of this appeared to produce no beneficial effect, and, if anything, had the opposite of the intended effect.
This study, of course, is just the latest in a long line of similar studies calling into question the assumption—for it is only an assumption—that harsh lockdowns lower mortality.
For example, back in May, researchers at The Lancet concluded that “hard lockdowns” don’t “protect old and frail” people, nor do they decrease mortality from covid-19. Later, a July study in The Lancet stated: “The authors identified a negative association between the number of days to any lockdown and the total reported cases per million, where a longer time prior to the implementation of any lockdown was associated with a lower number of detected cases per million.”
In an August 1 study, also published by The Lancet, the authors concluded, “Rapid border closures, full lockdowns, and wide-spread testing were not associated with COVID-19 mortality per million people.”
A June study published in Advance by Stefan Homburg and Christof Kuhbandner found that the data “strongly suggests” that
the UK lockdown was both superfluous (it did not prevent an otherwise explosive behavior of the spread of the coronavirus) and ineffective (it did not slow down the death growth rate visibly).
In fact, the overall trend of infection and death appears to be remarkably similar across many jurisdictions regardless of what nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) are implemented by policymakers.
In a paper published with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), authors Andrew Atkeson, Karen Kopecky, and Tao Zha found that covid-19 deaths followed a similar pattern “virtually everywhere in the world” and that “[f]ailing to account for this familiar pattern risks overstating the importance of policy mandated NPIs for shaping the progression of this deadly pandemic.”
Refusing to be daunted by these holes in the official narrative, lockdown advocates often insist that lockdowns must be tolerated because “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
But this is a highly questionable notion as well.
Lockdowns and other forms of mandated isolation bring with them a host of health problems of their own. As Bendavid et al. note, restrictive NPIs:
Includ[e] hunger, opioid-related overdoses, missed vaccinations, increase in non-COVID diseases from missed health services, domestic abuse, mental health and suicidality, as well as a host of economic consequences with health implications—it is increasingly recognized that their postulated benefits deserve careful study.
Perhaps not surprisingly, data on excess mortality during the covid-19 pandemic suggests only two-thirds of excess mortality can be medically connected to covid-19. As explained in a study in JAMA:
“Some people who never had the virus may have died because of disruptions caused by the pandemic,” says Dr. Steven H. Woolf, the director emeritus of the Virginia university’s Center on Society and Health and first author of the study. “These include people with acute emergencies, chronic diseases like diabetes that were not properly cared for, or emotional crises that led to overdoses or suicides.”
Increases in dementia deaths were especially notable.
And these effects can also be felt in the long term. As I showed in an April 30 article, unemployment kills. Economic crises, such as this one that was made worse by mandatory shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, leads to countless “years of life lost” through more suicide, heart disease, and drug overdoses.
Moreover, given the nature of the shutdowns and who is affected, this has lopsidedly affected women and especially Hispanic women, who are heavily represented in the workforce behind the service industry businesses shut down by government-imposed business closures.
The cumulative effect can be quite large. In a new study from Francesco Bianchi, Giada Bianchi, and Dongho Song from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors conclude that the economic fallout—in terms of unemployment and its effects—will lead to nearly nine hundred thousand deaths over the next fifteen years.
Of course, not all of the economic pain that coincided with the covid-19 panic of 2020 can be blamed on forced shutdowns. Many people would have likely minimized contact with others voluntarily out of fear of the disease. This would have indeed caused economic distortions and greater unemployment in some sectors.
But, as Bianchi, Bianchi, and Song admit, the lockdowns “contributed to further reduce economic activity” above and beyond normal voluntary reactions to covid-19. Combining these facts with what we know from the new Bendavid et al. study—namely that voluntary measures accomplished the bulk of mitigation—suggests the “further reduction” in economic activity produced no additional health benefits. That is, the portion of economic destruction wrought by forced shutdowns was inflicted upon the public for nothing.
Prior to 2020, of course, this was common knowledge. In a 2006 paper in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism called “Disease Mitigation Measures in the Control of Pandemic Influenza” by Thomas V. Inglesby, Jennifer B. Nuzzo, Tara O’Toole, and D.A. Henderson, the authors conclude:
The negative consequences of large-scale quarantine are so extreme (forced confinement of sick people with the well; complete restriction of movement of large populations; difficulty in getting critical supplies, medicines, and food to people inside the quarantine zone) that this mitigation measure should be eliminated from serious consideration.
Yet, “public health” bureaucrats suddenly decided in 2020 that decades of research was to be thrown out the window and lockdowns were to be imposed on hundreds of millions of human beings.
Mandatory Lockdowns vs. Voluntary Social Distancing
It should be noted that none of these researchers questioning the lockdown narrative express any problem with voluntary measures to reduce exposure to disease. Few are even likely to oppose measures like avoiding mass indoor gatherings.
But those sorts of measures are fundamentally different from mandated business closures and stay-at-home orders. The problem with mandatory lockdowns—in contrast to voluntary social distancing—is highlighted by the fact that they indiscriminately rob vulnerable populations of the services and assistance they need. And by “vulnerable populations” I mean anyone who is vulnerable to any life-threatening condition. Although we’re being conditioned to believe that deaths from covid are the only deaths worth noticing, the fact is that the world includes people who are vulnerable to suicide, drug overdoses, and to economic ruin—which comes with countless secondary effects in the form of health problems. By denying these people the freedom to seek an income and secure the social and medical support they need, we are essentially saying that those people are expendable and it’s better to tilt the scales in favor of covid patients.
But as the mounting evidence discussed above suggests, the lockdowns don’t even produce the desired effects. So vulnerable people suffering from depression, untreated cancer, and other life-threatening conditions were forced to simply suffer unaided for no justifiable reason. This was done to fit a political narrative, but it was based on a batch of bad assumptions, half-baked science, and the arrogance of politicians.