Americans have been living with the pandemic for almost a year. In that time, the efficacy of public policies designed to limit the virus’s spread in advance of therapeutics and vaccines have been thoroughly examined, but few “non-pharmaceutical interventions” have been more exhaustively studied than lockdown. The verdict rendered by dispassionate, empirical analysts of lockdown’s effects has been generally ambiguous, even bordering on negative. But you would not know it by reading the New York Times.
“The severity of the current outbreak can be traced to the rush to reopen last spring,” the Times affirmed definitively on Sunday, citing “interviews with more than 100 health, political and community leaders” as well as a review of state-government records. “Many governors moved quickly, sometimes acting over the objections of their advisers. The reopenings nationally led to a surge of new infections that grew over time: Never again would the country’s average drop below 20,000 new cases a day.”
Once again, the usual suspects find themselves in the Times’ sights: Florida, Texas, and South Dakota—hidebound, Republican-led states that supposedly privileged commerce over life itself. What about Democrat-led states, such as Colorado, which also reopened their economies in the late spring? “Mr. Trump had left them without the political support they needed,” the Times generously asserted.
These are the orthodoxies of lockdown as an ethos; a didactic tale with unimpeachable good guys, irredeemable villains, and a redemptive arc for characters who discover the folly of their skepticism. And although the Times does attempt to make the case that public-policy interventions were not limited to lockdown alone, the nuance was lost on Times health-care reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who concisely summarized the thrust of the investigation: “The spring rush to reopen caused the current crisis.”
The confidence with which that conclusion is rendered might have fooled the Times’ more credulous readers into assuming there is no valid counterargument. That would come as a surprise to the numerous medical journals that have declined to validate the effectiveness of lockdowns as a means of arresting the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, studies have repeatedly found that the advantages of restrictions on public life are, at best, indeterminate.
In July 2020, the Lancet published one of the first major studies of government-backed containment measures such as border closures, stay-at-home orders, and the shuttering of non-essential businesses across 50 countries. While the study found that closing both the borders and businesses did reduce the burden on the health-care system and, therefore, may contribute to better outcomes for COVID sufferers, “full lockdowns and wide-spread COVID-19 testing were not associated with reductions in the number of critical cases or overall mortality.” This alone is enough to invalidate the contention that the scale of our “current crisis,” which is typified by both critical cases and excess mortality rates, is reduced by lockdown.
Although this was a preliminary inquiry in the pandemic’s early days, subsequent studies did not validate the assumptions expressed by lockdown’s most committed enthusiasts.
A study conducted by researchers at Tel Aviv University and published in October 2020 reached roughly the same conclusions the Lancet arrived at in July. “We would have expected to see fewer COVID-19 fatalities in countries with a tighter lockdown, but the data reveals that this is not the case,” the study’s authors concluded. Their survey found no statistical correlation between lockdown restrictions and COVID-related fatalities. For example, while both Israel and the Czech Republic had similar mortality rates, the Czech experience did not include Israel’s severe and repeated lockdowns. “The lockdown in Spain was longer and tighter than the French closure,” the authors continued, “but when both ended, mortality rates in the two countries were about the same, since both started social distancing at around the same time.”
A peer-reviewed November 2020 article published by Frontiers in Public Health reached a similar determination. “Stringency of the measures settled to fight pandemia, including lockdown, did not appear to be linked with death rate,” the authors declared. “Countries that already experienced a stagnation or regression of life expectancy, with high income and [non-communicable disease] rates, had the highest price to pay. This burden was not alleviated by more stringent public decisions.”
A study out of Denmark published last December provides some of the clearest data about the effects of lockdown versus more voluntary measures, in part, because of the existence of a control group. That study focused on 11 comparable Danish municipalities, some of which were forced to undergo a strict quarantine in November 2020 following the discovery of mutated coronavirus strains found near local mink farms. The conclusion the study reached is by now familiar. “The researchers found no significant difference in the number of infections before and after the lockdown was intensified, compared to the other group of four,” one analyst determined. “They also found that the lockdown had no significant effect at any level of infection in terms of a difference in infection rates between those municipalities that were or were not locked down.”
At the very least, a cautious parsing of the available data would lead prudent observers to reserve judgment about the benefits of locking society down to stop the spread of a deadly respiratory infection. Such prudence would absolutely preclude rendering a triumphant indictment of lockdown skeptics like the one that appeared in the Times. We must conclude that the value of this reporting isn’t its precision. It is a reaffirmation of a commitment to a cause and a restatement of opposition to those who would balance the nation’s long-term economic, social, and mental health against the assumed benefits of severe restrictions on social and economic life.
When we eventually commit to a critical evaluation of the things we did during the pandemic, articles like these will be there to serve as evidence for the defense. So far, though, the evidence is not compelling.