Political Editors / January 16, 2023

In Brief: How Deadly Were COVID Lockdowns?

For Americans under 45, there were more excess deaths without the virus in 2020-21 than with it.

Most of us are simply tired of even hearing about COVID and simply want to move on with life. Others insist there are still unlearned lessons. Rob Arnott and Casey Mulligan are among them. Arnott is founding chairman of Research Affiliates and Mulligan is an economics professor at the University of Chicago who was also an adviser to President Donald Trump. They write in The Wall Street Journal that the response to COVID was deadlier than the disease, which is exactly what we warned at the outset of the pandemic.

Covid-19 is deadly, but so were the draconian steps taken to mitigate it. During the first two years of the pandemic, “excess deaths” — the death toll above the historical trend — markedly exceeded the number of deaths attributed to Covid. In a paper we just published in Inquiry, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we found that “non-Covid excess deaths” totaled nearly 100,000 a year in 2020 and 2021.

Even these numbers likely overestimate deaths from Covid and underestimate those from other causes. Covid testing has become ubiquitous in hospitals, and the official count of “Covid deaths” includes people who tested positive but died of other causes. On the other side, some Covid deaths early in the pandemic weren’t diagnosed as such. We adjusted for the latter effect but not the former.

What are non-Covid excess deaths? During the pandemic, deaths from accidents, overdoses, alcoholism and homicide all soared, as did deaths from hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. From April 2020 through December 2021, deaths from Covid averaged 350,000 a year for Americans 65 and older, 100,000 a year for those 45 to 64, and 20,000 a year for those 18 to 44. That produced excess deaths for these age groups of 16%, 19% and 11% respectively. (The percentages reflect the lower base death rate for younger age groups as well as the raw numbers.)

The pair goes on to discuss some of the details of demographics and other health factors and how that impacted overall numbers. The problem, they argue, is that some policies created changes that will cause deaths for years to come. They conclude:

If the pandemic response had to involve wholesale disruption of ordinary life, the public-health community should have been actively monitoring its effects on the millions of Americans we knew suffered from drug addiction, diabetes and many other potentially lethal health conditions. No time is too soon to acknowledge and begin to alleviate the collateral damage from Covid policies.

Wall Street Journal subscribers can read the whole thing here.

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