Restrictive public health measures were sold as temporary trade-offs of liberty for safety from infection. The pitch was that, if we give up freedom of movement, trade, and normal social interaction for a short time, we could beat COVID-19 and then get back to living. But from day one (as Reason has emphasized) the costs to liberty and prosperity have been high for uncertain return. And now researchers present new evidence that the world got very little benefit for the freedom that was taken away.
"Lockdowns in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% on average," finds a meta-analysis of 24 studies published this week by researchers with the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. The authors were Jonas Herby (with the Danish Center for Political Studies), Lars Jonung (Lund University), and Steve H. Hanke (Johns Hopkins University) "SIPOs [Shelter-in-place-orders] were also ineffective, only reducing COVID-19 mortality by 2.9% on average," the trio wrote.
The analysis finds "some evidence" that closing bars reduced deaths. But "no evidence that lockdowns, school closures, border closures, and limiting gatherings have had a noticeable effect on COVID-19 mortality."
"While this meta-analysis concludes that lockdowns have had little to no public health effects, they have imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted," the authors advise. "In consequence, lockdown policies are ill-founded and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument."
While we're comfortable enough with pandemic-era terminology to know what's being discussed, it's worth knowing that the paper defines lockdowns as "the imposition of at least one compulsory, non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI). NPIs are any government mandate that directly restrict peoples' possibilities, such as policies that limit internal movement, close schools and businesses, and ban international travel." Shelter-in-place-orders are dictates generally confining people to their homes.
This paper won't be the last word on the effectiveness of public-health policies, given that they continue in many places, as do their effects. But it's also not the first word, since we've been warned since the early days of COVID-19 that authoritarian efforts to control infection are counterproductive.
"It's becoming clear that a lot of people have been exposed to the virus and that the death rate in people under 65 is not something you would lock down the economy for," Sunetra Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University, cautioned in June 2020. "We can't just think about those who are vulnerable to the disease. We have to think about those who are vulnerable to lockdown too. The costs of lockdown are too high at this point."
Gupta later co-authored the Great Barrington Declaration, which called for a less-restrictive approach to combating COVID-19.
"Really important point by Professor Gupta," David Nabarro, special envoy on COVID-19 for the World Health Organization, commented in October 2020 with regard to the Oxford epidemiologist's economic concerns. "We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus. The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we'd rather not do it."
In the midst of concern over inflation, empty shelves, and labor shortages, the cost of public-health interventions into the economy should be obvious. Researchers find that mandatory lockdowns slammed business revenues in California and choked-off international trade. Flooding the economy with money to offset disruptions devalued currencies and caused prices to rise.
"Overall federal debt rose nearly 30 percent," pointed out economist John H. Cochrane in a December 2021 paper. "Is it at all a surprise that a year later inflation breaks out?"
We also paid a price in terms of liberty.
"The withdrawal of civil liberties, attacks on freedom of expression and the failures of democratic accountability that occurred as a result of the pandemic are grave matters," The Economist's Democracy Index 2020 reported early in 2021.
"The world is becoming more authoritarian as non-democratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression and many democratic governments suffer from backsliding by adopting their tactics of restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, exacerbated by what threatens to become a 'new normal' of Covid-19 restrictions," Sweden's International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance warned at the end of last year.
"We are ready to step out of the shadow of the coronavirus. We say 'goodbye' to restrictions and 'welcome' to the life we knew before," Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said this week.
But residents of Boston, Washington, D.C., and other U.S. jurisdictions are still required by law to show proof of vaccination to enter many businesses. Amnesty International recently condemned Italy's draconian pandemic policies. And the World Health Organization continues to urge countries to abandon travel restrictions.
"Lift or ease international traffic bans as they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress experienced" around the world, the organization urged in January.
Now we have further evidence that enormous incursions into civil liberties and economic prosperity have done little to reduce deaths from COVID-19. We've had an awful lot taken from us in return for very little, if any, gain.
"Overall, we conclude that lockdowns are not an effective way of reducing mortality rates during a pandemic, at least not during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic," the Johns Hopkins paper's authors add. "Our results are in line with the World Health Organization Writing Group (2006), who state, 'Reports from the 1918 influenza pandemic indicate that social-distancing measures did not stop or appear to dramatically reduce transmission.'"
There's a lesson here, though it's not just about the ineffectiveness of the most intrusive efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. It's a caution that any benefits the political class promises in return for disrupting our lives may be illusory. We'll have to fight to regain our liberty and prosperity, and we may never fully regain what we had.