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Lockdowns did far more good than harm
A new study by the British Royal Society backs their use to buy time until vaccines and drugs arrive
Did the government-ordered shutdowns of businesses and schools and restrictions on indoor activities in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic prevent the spread of disease and save lives? If so, were those benefits worth the sharp decline in economic activity, the disrupted education for tens of millions of children, and, yes, the lives lost when people stopped using routine health care?
The British Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy, on Thursday answered the first question with an unequivocal “yes” after reviewing hundreds of studies evaluating the various “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (NPIs) imposed by most governments around the world. Each NPI was evaluated separately. They included social distancing and lockdowns; masking mandates; testing, tracing and isolation of the infected; and travel restrictions with strict border controls.
The most effective measure for slowing the spread of the deadly communicable disease — and, as it turned out, the most controversial — was social distancing and lockdowns. “Stay-at-home orders, physical distancing, and restrictions on gathering size were repeatedly found to be associated with significant reduction in SARS-CoV-2 transmission, with more stringent measures having greater effects,” the report said.
This latest meta-analysis (a study that aggregates and analyzes data from numerous studies) rebuts the idea that lockdowns had almost no impact on slowing the pandemic’s reach. A non-peer-reviewed paper published in early 2022, authored by three economists and led Steve Hanke, who runs an research institute at Johns Hopkins University and is a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, found lockdowns reduced mortality by just 0.2%.
That study was given extensive coverage by Fox News, whose anchors accused the mainstream media of blacking out its conclusions. But epidemiologists who reviewed the paper dismissed its findings by noting its authors excluded numerous studies that showed a reduction in disease transmission and mortality during lockdowns.
The cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns
But how about the second question: Did the reduction in disease transmission and associated reduction in mortality from lockdowns, especially before the vaccine became widely available in mid-2021, justify their collateral damage?
Here, the research is divided with their conclusions closely correlated with their authors’ academic or political orientation. Epidemiologists and public health officials emphasize the total number of lives saved. Economists focus on the lockdowns’ economic and social costs. Most of the former are social liberals and affiliated with major universities. Most of the latter are conservatives, frequently associated with right-of-center think tanks.
For instance, a cost-benefit analysis conducted by epidemiologists at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and published in PLOS One around the same time as the Hanke study estimated the sweeping lockdowns that were adopted by many states in 2020 saved at least 866,000 lives. The economic downturn, on the other hand, cost just 58,000 lives (I’m using the lower bound of their estimates in both cases).
The authors admitted the benefit-to-risk ratio when measured in quality-adjusted-life-years was much lower because the lives saved were mostly older while those harmed were mostly still of working age.
On the other hand, a paper published in the International Journal of Economics of Business around the same time reviewed over 100 Covid-19 papers and found they wildly over-estimated the benefits of lockdowns, primarily because the reduced mortality affected mostly the old. “It is possible that lockdown will go down as one of the greatest peacetime policy failures in modern history,” wrote Douglas Allen, an economist at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
This ignores the fact that deaths from COVID-19 after vaccines arrived among people under the age of 65 rose to 29% of the total from 20% during the pre-vaccination period. (This paragraph has been corrected; an earlier version incorrectly said post-vaccination deaths among those under 65 was half the total.)
The debate over lockdowns was politicized from the start. During the heat of President Donald Trump’s run for reelection in 2020, Attorney General William Barr compared stay-at-home orders to slavery.
“This is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” he said. He obviously wasn’t aware that lockdowns had been ordered in many jurisdictions during the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, and prior to the current pandemic had been widely accepted in public health circles as a useful tool when confronted by a dangerous pathogen. Nor did he show any interest in research that shows that where lockdowns were deployed after WWI, the mortality rates from flu were significantly below those of jurisdictions that refused to use lockdowns.
I’m certain that is what will happen as this pandemic fades from memory. Most of the public will only remember where they stood in relation to the two sides of the politicized controversy over lockdowns, and ignore the facts. They will recall the gladness they felt when restrictions were lifted after the vaccines arrived in the spring of 2021, not the one million-plus lives lost to Covid-19.
And that outcome will leave us just as unprepared for the next pandemic as we were for this one.
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