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.
“Most likely lockdowns represent the biggest policy mistake in modern times,” says Lars Jonung of Lund University in Sweden, a coauthor of one of the new reports. He and two fellow economists, Steve Hanke from Johns Hopkins University and Jonas Herby of the Center for Political Studies in Copenhagen, sifted through nearly 20,000 studies for their book, Did Lockdowns Work?, published in June by the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in London. After combining results from the most rigorous studies analyzing fatality rates and the stringency of lockdowns in various states and nations, they estimate that the average lockdown in the United States and Europe during the spring of 2020 reduced Covid mortality by just 3.2 percent. That translates to some 4,000 avoided deaths in the United States—a negligible result compared with the toll from the ordinary flu, which annually kills nearly 40,000 Americans.
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.
So will the economic and social consequences of the lockdowns, which showed up clearly in the Paragon Health Institute comparison of states’ performance. The researchers found that states with the more stringent pandemic restrictions had worse declines in economic output and higher rates of unemployment, and that children in those states lost more days of in-person schooling. These disruptions contributed to a substantial increase in domestic migration, the Paragon researchers found, as people escaped from the more restrictive states and moved to states with less stringent policies.
The lockdowns were the most radical experiment in the history of public health, implemented without evidence that they would work. (In fact, before Covid, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and other nations’ health agencies had specifically advised against lockdowns in their plans for dealing with a pandemic.) The experiment was promoted by computer modelers who projected that 2 million Americans would die by the end of the summer in 2020 unless governments mandated lockdowns, which they estimated would reduce mortality by 80 percent or more. Both estimates turned out to be absurdly wrong—and so was the modelers’ assumption that government mandates were the only way to change people’s behavior.
“Studies early in the pandemic assumed that without lockdowns everyone would be infected because people wouldn’t make any voluntary changes in their behavior,” says Herby, a coauthor of the IEA report. . “But in fact the voluntary social distancing and other changes in behavior had a huge impact, much larger than the lockdowns.” He points to Sweden, where elderly people drastically reduced their shopping and other activities outside the home without being ordered to do so. By avoiding lockdowns and school closures, Sweden fared as well or better than the rest of Europe in preventing Covid deaths while allowing younger people to go on with their lives. It also suffered less social and economic damage: while more people were dying from non-Covid causes in the U.S. and the rest of Europe, that rate of excess mortality declined in Sweden.
Swedes avoided lockdowns 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. Constraining the power of government officials improved Sweden’s ability to cope with Covid. That lesson applies to other emergencies, too, according to Christian Bjørnskov, a Danish economist who has compared casualty rates in natural disasters around the world.
Bjørnskov and a German colleague, Stefan Voigt, have found that fewer people die from natural disasters in countries with laws that restrict the power of national leaders during an emergency. If leaders are unconstrained—if they can suspend people’s personal and economic liberties—then the disruptions hinder people’s voluntary efforts to deal with the disaster. After a hurricane, for instance, local officials and citizens will normally aid their stricken neighbors, but they’re less inclined to act if the national government takes charge by suspending property rights to commandeer boats, vehicles, and other local resources. “Civil society is more likely to help if the authorities are not allowed to run roughshod over private citizens,” Bjørnskov says. “It is also much more likely that the authorities will misuse their emergency powers for their own uses, diverting resources toward purposes that have nothing to do with the emergency. They increase spending and regulation, and it takes longer for the country to get back to normal.”
That was certainly the case during the pandemic, as politicians went on budget-busting binges that showered money on special interests and pet projects that had nothing to do with Covid. To reward teachers’ unions for their support, politicians kept schools closed long after it was obvious that they could be safely reopened. The inflationary effects of the spending have slowed the economic recovery from the pandemic, and the school closures have set children back so far that many will never catch up. One estimate suggests that the average American student will earn 6 percent less over the course of a lifetime because of learning loss during the pandemic.
Predictably, the officials responsible for the damage are ignoring these consequences and seeking even more power in the future. CDC officials are planning to be more aggressive in the next pandemic, and the World Health Organization wants countries to sign a new pandemic treaty giving the WHO the authority of international law to order lockdowns and other measures.
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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