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A Failed Experiment

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from the magazine

A Failed Experiment

The lockdowns must end. Autumn 2020
Covid-19
Economy, finance, and budgets
The Social Order

Lockdowns are typically portrayed as prudent precautions against Covid-19, but they are surely the most risky experiment ever conducted on the public. From the start, researchers have warned that lockdowns could prove far deadlier than the coronavirus. People who lose their jobs or businesses are more prone to fatal drug overdoses and suicide, and evidence already exists that many more will die from cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, and tuberculosis and other diseases because the lockdown prevented their ailments from being diagnosed early and treated properly.

Yet politicians and public-health officials conducting this unprecedented experiment have paid little attention to these risks. In their initial rush to lock down society, they insisted that there was no time for such analysis—and besides, these were just temporary measures to “flatten the curve” so as not to overwhelm hospitals. But since that danger passed, the lockdown enforcers have found one reason after another to persevere with closures, bans, quarantines, curfews, and other mandates. Anthony Fauci, the White House advisor, recently said that even if a vaccine arrives soon, he does not expect a return to normality before late next year.

He and politicians like New York governor Andrew Cuomo and British prime minister Boris Johnson profess to be following “the science,” but no ethical scientist would conduct such a risky experiment without carefully considering the dangers and monitoring the results. After doing so, a group of leading researchers this week called for an end to the experiment. In a joint statement, the Great Barrington Declaration, they predicted that continued lockdowns will lead to “excess mortality in years to come” and warned of “irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.”

While the economic and social costs have been enormous, it’s not clear that the lockdowns have brought significant health benefits beyond what was achieved by people’s voluntary social distancing and other actions. Some researchers have credited lockdowns with slowing the pandemic, but they’ve relied on mathematical models with assumptions about people’s behavior and the virus’s tendency to spread—the kinds of models and assumptions that previously produced wild overestimates of how many people would die during the pandemic. Other researchers have sought more direct evidence, looking at mortality patterns. They have detected little impact.

In a comparison of 50 countries, a team led by Rabail Chaudhry of the University of Toronto found that Covid was deadlier in places with older populations and higher rates of obesity, but the mortality rate was no lower in countries that closed their borders or enforced full lockdowns. After analyzing 23 countries and 25 U.S. states with widely varying policies, Andrew Atkeson of UCLA and fellow economists found that the mortality trend was similar everywhere once the disease took hold: the number of daily deaths rose rapidly for 20 to 30 days, and then fell rapidly.

Similar conclusions were reached in analyses of Covid deaths in Europe. By studying the time lag between infection and death, Simon Wood of the University of Edinburgh concluded that infections in Britain were already declining before the nation’s lockdown began in late March. In an analysis of Germany’s 412 counties, Thomas Wieland of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology found that infections were waning in most of the country before the national lockdown began and that the additional curfews imposed in Bavaria and other states had no effect.

Wieland hasn’t published any work on New York City’s pandemic, but he says that the city’s trend looks similar to Germany’s. If, as some studies have shown, a Covid death typically occurs between 21 days and 26 days after infection, the peak of infections would have occurred at least three weeks prior to the peak in deaths on April 7. That would mean that infections in the city had already begun to decline by March 17—three days before Cuomo announced the lockdown and five days before it took effect.

Of course, it’s possible that lockdowns accelerated the decline in some places and produced benefits that have gone undetected in those studies. Researchers working on different assumptions—such as how quickly the virus kills people—have concluded that lockdowns did save some lives (or at least postponed some deaths). Given all the uncertainties, you can’t rule out some benefits, but that’s hardly a justification for continuing such a risky experiment.

What experimental drug would ever be approved if there were so much conflicting evidence of its efficacy and so much solid evidence of its harmful side effects? The cost-benefit analysis becomes even bleaker if you switch from the metric favored by journalists and politicians—the running total of lives lost—to the metric that’s typically used in evaluating medical efficacy. It’s called the QALY, for quality-adjusted life year, a wonky term for what we think of as a “good year” of life, free from disease and disability. No politician wants to admit publicly that young people’s lives are more valuable than older people’s because they have more healthy years remaining, but using this guide is the most sensible way to allocate health resources—and it’s long been favored by some of the same progressive health-care experts now clamoring for lockdowns.

By the QALY measure, the lockdowns must be the most costly—and cost-ineffective—medical intervention in history because most of the beneficiaries are so near the end of life. Covid-19 disproportionately affects people over 65, who have accounted for nearly 80 percent of the deaths in the United States. The vast majority suffered from other ailments, and more than 40 percent of the victims were living in nursing homes, where the median life expectancy after admission is just five months. In Britain, a study led by the Imperial College economist David Miles concluded that even if you gave the lockdown full credit for averting the most unrealistic worst-case scenario (the projection of 500,000 British deaths, more than ten times the current toll), it would still flunk even the most lenient QALY cost-benefit test.

No one wants to hasten the demise of the elderly, but they and other vulnerable people can be shielded without shutting down the rest of the society, as Sweden and other countries have demonstrated. Sweden was denounced early in the pandemic by lockdown proponents because of its relatively high death rate—and it did initially flounder in protecting nursing homes—but its overall mortality rate is now lower than that of the United States and some other European countries. The rate is higher than that of its Nordic neighbors, but mainly because of demographic differences and other factors not related to its failure to shut down.

None of these facts, though, gets as much as attention as the daily case counts for Covid. Nor do all the unseen casualties: the people dying from heart disease, cancer, suicide, and other causes related to lockdowns and economic distress. Early in the pandemic, Scott Atlas at the Hoover Institution and researchers at Swansea University independently calculated that the lockdowns would ultimately cost more years of life than Covid-19 in the United States and Britain, and the toll seems certain to be worse in poor countries. The World Bank estimates that the coronavirus recession could push 60 million people into extreme poverty, which inevitably means more disease and death.

The lockdowns may have been justified in the spring, when so little was known about the virus and the ways to contain it. But now that we know more, there’s no ethical justification for continuing this failed experiment.

Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

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