For the lockdown-weary, a brief window of hope opened after the presidential election. With Joe Biden victorious, Democratic politicians and their media allies lost their incentive to weaken Donald Trump’s economy and stoke Covid-19 panic among voters. And with Republicans well-positioned to retain the Senate, governors and mayors in blue states could no longer count on a windfall from a Democratic Congress to rescue them from the consequences of their lockdowns. Finally, cooler heads could prevail—right?
So much for that fantasy. Instead of reconsidering their policies, local officials are restricting more businesses and closing more schools, as New York City has just done. Journalists continue treating Covid deaths as the only ones that matter, while ignoring the mounting medical and social toll from lockdowns. Promising more restrictions, Biden has created an advisory board comprised of individuals who favor stricter lockdowns and foresee restrictions continuing until late next year, even if a Covid vaccine is quickly approved.
Biden and other leaders claim to be following “the science,” but that obviously doesn’t include the research showing the high costs and low benefits of lockdowns and school closures. Closing schools was a dubious move in the spring, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that it would likely do little to stem the pandemic (and noted that school closings in other countries had failed to make a discernible impact). Today it makes even less sense in light of the accumulated evidence.
For young students, the risk of dying from Covid is lower than the risk of dying from the flu, and researchers have repeatedly found that children do not easily transmit the virus to adults. The clearest evidence comes from Sweden, which did not close elementary schools or junior high schools during the spring Covid wave, and which did not reduce class sizes or encourage students and teachers to wear face masks.
Not a single child died, and there was little effect beyond the schools, as a team of Swedish economists reports after analyzing records of Covid infections and medical treatment for the entire Swedish population. The researchers, from the universities of Stockholm and Uppsala, took advantage of a natural experiment in Sweden by comparing hundreds of thousands of parents at the junior high schools (for students aged 14 to 16), which remained open, against those at the senior high schools, which switched to online instruction for two months in the spring.
There was scant danger from the schools that remained open. The parents at those schools were 15 percent more likely to test positive for the virus than the parents whose children stayed home, but they were no more likely to be treated or hospitalized for Covid. The classroom teachers were twice as likely as the online teachers to test positive, but their infection rate was nonetheless lower than the rate among parents at either type of school. Just 0.2 percent of the classroom teachers were hospitalized for Covid, lower than the rate among parents. The Swedish researchers suggest additional protections for classroom teachers, like encouraging them to start wearing masks or allowing the older, more vulnerable ones to teach online. But after calculating that a closure of all the junior high schools would have reduced the Swedish national rate of Covid infection by a mere 1 percent, the economists conclude that closing schools is “not a particularly effective way” to stop the spread of the virus.
The chief effect of school closures is to hurt students. In St. Paul, Minnesota, where schools have been mostly closed since March, 40 percent of the students are failing this quarter—double the normal rate. In the Dallas public schools, which closed in March and reopened late this fall, recent tests revealed that half of the students have regressed in mathematics since last year, and that’s probably typical of the “learning loss” that will have long-lasting effects on students around the world. Economists at the World Bank estimate that the spring closures will ultimately reduce the affected students’ lifetime earnings by 5 percent—a loss totaling $10 trillion worldwide. Extrapolating from the well-established effects of education and income on life expectancy, another team of researchers calculates that the springtime school closures in the United States will shorten students’ lives by a cumulative total of more than five million years—more years of life than were lost to the pandemic in the spring.
But those considerations don’t carry much weight with teachers’ unions—and the politicians who depend on them for reelection. Governors and mayors kept many schools closed or only partially open at the start of the fall, and this month they’ve been ordering further shutdowns. Since New York City reopened its schools in September, there has been a minuscule rate of infection among students and staff members—just two cases per thousand. But Mayor Bill de Blasio is so in thrall to the teachers’ union that he closed schools this week even though the city’s positivity test rate is well below the threshold used for closing schools in the rest of the state.
The school closures are disproportionately harming African-American and Hispanic students, and other lockdown measures fall hardest on low-income workers who can’t do their jobs from home, as was repeatedly pointed out by Trump and the researchers he consulted, like Scott Atlas of the Hoover Institution. Atlas, whose calculations show that the social costs of lockdowns exceed the benefits, calls them “a luxury of the rich.” But despite Biden’s professed concern for reducing inequality, he has not urged schools and businesses to remain open. While he says that he will not impose a national lockdown, his advisory board is dominated by public-health professionals eager to impose still more costly restrictions.
One board member, Ezekiel Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania, used to be renowned for his devotion to cost-benefit analysis. He was an architect of Obamacare, including its controversial board (denounced by critics as a “death panel”) empowered to contain medical costs by limiting expensive treatments. He has advocated allocating medical resources according to a “complete lives system” that “prioritizes younger people who have not yet lived a complete life.” In a 2014 essay, written when he was 57, Emanuel said that once he reached 75 he would refuse most medical treatments, even simple ones like antibiotics, because he did not want to endure the diminished quality of life that comes with old age.
But once Covid became a campaign issue this year, he quickly recalibrated. The median age of Americans dying of Covid is close to 80, but Ezekiel wants to protect them with what is surely the most expensive (and least proven) medical intervention in history. The lockdowns so far have cost trillions of dollars, but Ezekiel dismisses them as inadequate because they have lacked “staying power.” He has advocated an eight-week national lockdown and a national mandate to wear masks, and he doesn’t expect vaccines to make a difference anytime soon. If all goes well, he says, schools might reopen next fall.
Another member of the board, Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, warned in March that lockdowns and school closures could do more harm than good, but he soon joined the chorus of Democrats criticizing Trump for wanting to keep schools and businesses open. In July, he warned against reopening schools too hastily, and by August he was calling for a national lockdown “as comprehensive and strict as possible,” so that people would be allowed to leave home only for food shopping and visits to doctors and pharmacies.
Osterholm also singled out New York governor Andrew Cuomo for praise, calling the state “a model for the rest of the United States.” This seemed rather bizarre, given that the Covid mortality rate in New York is the nation’s second-highest (exceeded only by New Jersey’s), and that infections peaked before Cuomo ordered a lockdown in March. Cuomo also famously justified the lockdown by declaring, “If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” This just-one-life rationale has traditionally been considered a prime fallacy in making public policy, which is supposed to be based on rational consideration of the common good. Now it apparently constitutes “the science” guiding the next president.
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