A new study has found that lockdown measures put in place during the early wave of the pandemic only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2 percent in the U.S. and Europe.
The shocking findings led experts to warn that the ‘marginal at best’ benefits of lockdowns needed to be compared with their ‘devastating effects’ on the economy and society.
“They have contributed to reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, causing political unrest, contributing to domestic violence, and undermining liberal democracy,’ the researchers wrote.
The research, overseen by Prof. Steve Hanke of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, was published in the ‘Studies in Applied Economics’.
Researchers explained that while early studies and model simulations predicted that suppression strategies would save many lives, that soon began to be questioned by scholars. They pointed to the now-discredited modelling from researchers at the Imperial College London (Ferguson et al. (2020)) which predicted that a suppression strategy based on a lockdown would reduce COVID-19 mortality by up to 98% – a wildly inaccurate estimate which alarmed governments and drove strict lockdown policies.
They pointed out that a previous study showed that government policies were strongly driven by the policies initiated in other countries, and less by the specific COVID-19-situation.
The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 34 studies to derive the relative effect of lockdowns on COVID-19 mortality, where mortality is measured as COVID-19-related deaths per million. In practice, this means that the studies we included estimate the effect of lockdowns. They focused on compulsory rather than voluntary interventions.
They concluded that “our meta-analysis fails to confirm that lockdowns have had a large, significant effect on mortality rates.”
“Studies examining the relationship between lockdown strictness (based on the OxCGRT stringency index) find that the average lockdown in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% compared to a COVID-19 policy based solely on recommendations,” they found.
And the researchers noted that the World Health Organisation had previously stated that “social-distancing measures did not stop or appear to dramatically reduce transmission
“What does the evidence tell us about the effects of lockdowns on mortality?” asked researchers. “We provide a firm answer to this question: The evidence fails to confirm that lockdowns have a significant effect in reducing COVID-19 mortality. The effect is little to none.”
“The use of lockdowns is a unique feature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns have not been used to such a large extent during any of the pandemics of the past century. However, lockdowns during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic have had devastating effects. They have contributed to reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, causing political unrest, contributing to domestic violence, and undermining liberal democracy. These costs to society must be compared to the benefits of lockdowns, which our meta-analysis has shown are marginal at best,” they concluded.
“Such a standard benefit-cost calculation leads to a strong conclusion: lockdowns should be rejected out of hand as a pandemic policy instrument.”
The findings will raise serious questions in regard to groupthink policymaking during the Covid crisis – as a reckoning looms for the fallout from almost two years of restrictions.
Rates of drug overdose deaths in the US rose to 100,306 from May 2020 to April 2021, up 28.5% according to CDC data. Rates of domestic violence increased during lockdown, mental health effects on children are still not fully understood.
In their discussion of the research findings, the experts say that they “propose four factors that might explain the difference between our conclusion and the view embraced by some epidemiologists.”
“First, people respond to dangers outside their door. When a pandemic rages, people believe in social distancing regardless of what the government mandates. So, we believe that Allen (2021) is right, when he concludes, “The ineffectiveness [of lockdowns] stemmed from individual
changes in behaviour: either non-compliance or behaviour that mimicked lockdowns.” In economic terms, you can say that the demand for costly disease prevention efforts like social distancing and increased focus on hygiene is high when infection rates are high. Contrary, when infection rates are low, the demand is low and it may even be morally and economically rational not to comply with mandates like SIPOs, which are difficult to enforce. Herby (2021) reviews studies which distinguish between mandatory and voluntary behavioural changes.
He finds that – on average – voluntary behavioural changes are 10 times as important as mandatory behavioral changes in combating COVID-19. If people voluntarily adjust their behaviour to the risk of the pandemic, closing down non-essential businesses may simply reallocate consumer visits away from “nonessential” to “essential” businesses, as shown by Goolsbee and Syverson (2021), with limited impact on the total number of contacts.47 This may also explain why epidemiological model simulations such as Ferguson et al. (2020) – which do not model behaviour endogenously – fail to forecast the effect of lockdowns.”
Second, mandates only regulate a fraction of our potential contagious contacts and can hardly regulate nor enforce handwashing, coughing etiquette, distancing in supermarkets, etc. Countries like Denmark, Finland, and Norway that realized success in keeping COVID-19 mortality rates relatively low allowed people to go to work, use public transport, and meet privately at home during the first lockdown. In these countries, there were ample opportunities to legally meet with others. In economic terms, lockdowns are substitutes for – not complements to – voluntary behavioural changes.”
“Third, even if lockdowns are successful in initially reducing the spread of COVID-19, the behavioural response may counteract the effect completely, as people respond to the lower risk by changing behaviour. As Atkeson (2021) points out, the economic intuition is straightforward. If closing bars and restaurants causes the prevalence of the disease to fall toward zero, the demand for costly disease prevention efforts like social distancing and increased focus on hygiene also falls towards zero, and the disease will return.”
“Fourth, unintended consequences may play a larger role than recognized. We already pointed to the possible unintended consequence of SIPOs [Shelter in Place Orders] , which may isolate an infected person at home with his/her family where he/she risks infecting family members with a higher viral load, causing more severe illness. But often, lockdowns have limited peoples’ access to safe (outdoor) places such as beaches, parks, and zoos, or included outdoor mask mandates or strict outdoor gathering restrictions, pushing people to meet at less safe (indoor) places. Indeed, we do find some evidence that limiting gatherings was counterproductive and increased COVID-19 mortality.”
“One objection to our conclusions may be that we do not look at the role of timing. If timing is very important, differences in timing may empirically overrule any differences in lockdowns. We note that this objection is not necessarily in contrast to our results. If timing is very important relative to strictness, this suggests that well-timed, but very mild, lockdowns should work as well as, or better than, less well-timed but strict lockdowns. This is not in contrast to our conclusion, as the studies we reviewed analyze the effect of lockdowns compared but to doing very little (see Section 3.1 for further discussion). However, there is little solid evidence supporting the timing thesis, because it is inherently difficult to analyze (see Section 2.2 for further discussion). Also, even if it can be empirically stated that a well-timed lockdown is effective in combating a pandemic, it is doubtful that this information will ever be useful from a policy perspective.
“But, what explains the differences between countries, if not differences in lockdown policies? Differences in population age and health, quality of the health sector, and the like are obvious factors. But several studies point at less obvious factors, such as culture, communication, and coincidences. For example, Frey et al. (2020) show that for the same policy stringency, countries
with more obedient and collectivist cultural traits experienced larger declines in geographic mobility relative to their more individualistic counterpart. Data from Germany Laliotis and Minos (2020) shows that the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting deaths in predominantly Catholic regions with stronger social and family ties were much higher compared to nonCatholic ones at the local NUTS 3 level.”
“Government communication may also have played a large role. Compared to its Scandinavian neighbors, the communication from Swedish health authorities was far more subdued and embraced the idea of public health vs. economic trade-offs. This may explain why Helsingen et al. (2020), found, based on questionnaire data collected from mid-March to mid-April, 2020, that even though the daily COVID-19 mortality rate was more than four times higher in Sweden than in Norway, Swedes were less likely than Norwegians to not meet with friends (55% vs. 87%), avoid public transportation (72% vs. 82%), and stay home during spare time (71% vs. 87%). That is, despite a more severe pandemic, Swedes were less affected in their daily activities (legal
in both countries) than Norwegians.
“Many other factors may be relevant, and we should not underestimate the importance of coincidences. An interesting example illustrating this point is found in Arnarson (2021) and Björk et al. (2021), who show that areas where the winter holiday was relatively late (in week 9 or 10 rather than week 6, 7 or 8) were hit especially hard by COVID-19 during the first wave because the virus outbreak in the Alps could spread to those areas with ski tourists. Arnarson (2021) shows that the effect persists in later waves. Had the winter holiday in Sweden been in week 7 or week 8 as in Denmark, the Swedish COVID-19 situation could have turned out very differently.”