Did the Lockdown Save Lives?
For two to three months, Americans have suffered the loss of liberty, security, and prosperity in the name of virus control. The psychological impact has been beyond description. We thought we could count on basic rights and freedoms. Then over a few days in March, it all ended in ways hardly anyone could believe possible.
The manner in which governments dealt with foundational principles of modernity has been shocking. They put half the country under house arrest and managed every movement in disregard for the Bill of Rights and all legal precedent, to say nothing of the Constitution. It felt like a coercive unraveling of civilization itself. It’s like we are all waking up from a bad dream only to look around and see the wreckage that proves it was all real.
So how can we deal with this terror that befell us? One way is to figure out some aspect in which our sacrifice has been worth it, maybe not on net given the consequences, but surely some good has come out of this. If my email and feeds are correct, this is how many people have been justifying this. The psychology here is rooted in the sunk-cost fallacy: when you commit resources to something, even when it is a proven error, you tend to find justifications by doubling down rather than just admitting the mistake.
Thus have many people written me to say that whether you agree or disagree with the lockdown, we have to admit that it has saved millions of lives. I always write back and ask how they know that. They send me a link to a projection – those very projections that presume all kinds of things about cause and effect that we cannot know and which have proven wrong time and again throughout this crisis.
So let’s just grant that it is possible that lockdowns can be credited with slowing the spread of the virus, and perhaps preserving hospital capacity (which turned out to be unnecessary). Still, the virus doesn’t then get bored and move by to Wuhan or to another planet. It still sticks around, so at best, these measures only “prolong the pain,” in the words of Knut Wittkowski.
So even if lockdowns slow the spread in the short run, it’s not clear that they have saved lives from the coronavirus, even if it results in more death overall from deferred surgeries and diagnostics, suicides, drug overdoses, and depression.
The trouble here is that certain features of this experience stand out to contradict the idea that lockdowns are saving lives over the longer term. In New York, two thirds of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 were in fact sheltering in place during the lockdown, essentially living in forced isolation. The lockdown didn’t help them; it might have contributed to making matters worse.
Meanwhile, despite the media hate poured out against Florida’s youthful spring break revelers, where hundreds of thousands declined to socially distance at the height of the virus risk, I’ve yet to find a credible report of fatalities beyond two that were probably unpreventable. This is because the risks to the younger population are negligible, as we’ve known for a long time now.
These environments are neither locked down nor open; the virus spread among the most vulnerable population after even just one exposure due to possible negligence and distraction by mass frenzy. In the midst of locking down the whole world, and our politicians were consumed with the desire to enforce stay-at-home orders and forced separation, the population that needed the most care was neglected. Even worse, in New York, California, and New Jersey, nursing homes were forced to take in COVID-19 patients.
One way we might discern whether and to what extent lockdowns have had any effect on infection and death is to examine the empirical case. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, T.J Rodgers examined all the existing studies:
Turning to the international front, consider the work of Isaac Ben-Israel, head of the Security Studies program in Tel Aviv University and the chairman of the National Council for Research and Development. His detailed study from around the world compares locked down countries with those that stayed open. The Times of Israel summarizes his findings as follows.
Even a casual look at the open societies of Sweden and Korea – despite going too far in interventions – demonstrate that they experienced lower rates of death than Europe and the U.K. Even the World Health Organization has praised Sweden’s response.
And a very careful empirical study of counterfactuals in Sweden concluded:
Finally, we have a decisive study from Bloomberg that carefully charts lockdowns and death, concluding:
Cause and effect are notoriously difficult to discern in human affairs on a macroscale. Even if it connects somehow to intuition that locking down keeps the virus away, they do not deal with the reality that the virus is still there, even if temporarily contained (which itself is arguable).
Quarantines, lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders and so on reflect a premodern bias and an unscientific impulse to run away and hide, a method used from the ancient world through selective quarantines in some cities in 1918. Then we got smart, developed a modern theory of viruses (well explained here), and eschewed them in every pandemic since World War II. Then, somehow, and mysteriously, one century flipped to the next and we got dumb again and here we are.
Did the lockdown save lives? It’s possible but not yet proven, and the evidence so far points to a negative answer. No matter how much we try to spin this in our heads, no matter how much we want to believe that something good has come out of this catastrophe, we are all going to have someday to deal with the terrible but likely reality that it was all for naught.
I conclude with the words of the great physician who is credited with smallpox eradication, Donald A. Henderson (1928-2016).
I'm executive editor of Laissez Faire Books and the proprietor of the Laissez Faire Club. I'm the author of two books in the field of economics and one on early music. My main professional work between 1985 and 2011 was with the MIses Institute but I've also worked with the Acton Institute and Mackinac Institute, as well as written thousands of published articles. My personal twitter account @jeffreyatucker FB is @jeffrey.albert.tucker Plain old email is [email protected]
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