In Brief: The Self-Inflicted Lockdown Disaster
Governments’ use of the pandemic to claim sweeping new emergency powers has had destructive effects.
Perhaps you’re tired of hearing or reading about lockdowns and are just ready to move on with life. That’s all well and good, but more Americans still need to learn the truth about the government’s response to COVID. John Tierney has done as a lot of investigative reporting on it over the years, and his latest look at lockdowns is a must-read.
Long before Covid struck, economists detected a deadly pattern in the impact of natural disasters: if the executive branch of government used the emergency to claim sweeping new powers over the citizenry, more people died than would have if government powers had remained constrained. It’s now clear that the Covid pandemic is the deadliest confirmation yet of that pattern.
Governments around the world seized unprecedented powers during the pandemic. The result was an unprecedented disaster, as recently demonstrated by two exhaustive analyses of the lockdowns’ impact in the United States and Europe. Both reports conclude that the lockdowns made little or no difference in the Covid death toll. But the lockdowns did lead to deaths from other causes during the pandemic, particularly among young and middle-aged people, and those fatalities will continue to mount in the future.
Tierney notes a study indicating that lockdowns in the U.S. and Europe “reduced Covid mortality by just 3.2 percent.” That’s not much, but it’s something. However:
Even that small effect may be an overestimate, to judge from the other report, published in February by the Paragon Health Institute. The authors, all former economic advisers to the White House, are Joel Zinberg and Brian Blaise of the institute, Eric Sun of Stanford, and Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago. They analyzed the rates of Covid mortality and of overall excess mortality (the number of deaths above normal from all causes) in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. They adjusted for the relative vulnerability of each state’s population by factoring in the age distribution (older people were more vulnerable) and the prevalence of obesity and diabetes (which increased the risk from Covid). Then they compared the mortality rates over the first two years of the pandemic with the stringency of each state’s policies (as measured on a widely used Oxford University index that tracked business and school closures, stay-at-home requirements, mandates for masks and vaccines, and other restrictions).
The researchers found no statistically significant effect from the restrictions. The mortality rates in states with stringent policies were not significantly different from those in less restrictive states. Two of the largest states, California and Florida, fared the same—their mortality rates both stood at the national average—despite California’s lengthy lockdowns and Florida’s early reopening. New York, with a mortality rate worse than average despite ranking first in the nation in the stringency of its policies, fared the same as the least restrictive state, South Dakota.
Meantime, the lockdowns did have other significant effects on health. Rates of smoking, drinking, and obesity increased. The number of excess deaths from non-Covid causes in the U.S. rose by nearly 100,000 annually due to extra deaths from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, obesity, drug overdoses, alcohol-induced causes, homicide, and traffic accidents. Many of these excess deaths, which occurred disproportionately among working-age adults, were presumably related to the lockdowns’ disruptions in people’s lives and in medical treatments. The delays in screening for heart disease and cancer will continue to have a deadly impact in the years ahead.
Ultimately, he says, “The lockdowns were the most radical experiment in the history of public health, implemented without evidence that they would work.” Indeed, lockdowns were frowned upon before the pandemic began.
He points to Sweden as the model, “partly because of the wisdom of their public-health leaders, and partly because of a provision in the Swedish constitution guaranteeing freedom of movement to citizens.” That could be a lesson for us, as he concludes:
If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic and earlier disasters, we ought to be doing precisely the opposite by enacting new limits on government power during emergencies. Americans need what Swedes have enjoyed: legal protection against autocrats posing as saviors.
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