Were the COVID-19 Lockdowns a Mistake?

Andrew I. Friedson says they flattened the curve. Lyman Stone disagrees.


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Many Americans are losing patience with statewide shelter-in-place orders.

"We don't have months or weeks—businesses are hurting," says Jim Desmond, a San Diego county supervisor who unsuccessfully attempted to introduce legislation hastening the re-opening of businesses in his county despite the statewide lockdown in California.

"[Those] hurt the most in this are the poor people, the people that rent, that worked in the hospitality sector and the restaurants, and a lot of single moms….We have people on the phone crying saying, 'Hey, I got a kid to feed,'" Desmond tells Reason.

So have the lockdowns actually saved lives? There's a debate over how to analyze the data.

"Lockdowns just don't actually alter behavior all that much," says Lyman Stone, an economist and demographer who's an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. He argues that there's no correlation between the timing of statewide or regional shelter-in-place orders and a decline in the COVID-19 death rate.

"We can basically build a theory and assert that the world obeys our theory and just go looking for any scrap of evidence that supports it," says Stone, "or we can start by looking at what are the trends we actually observe." 

Stone looked at the date governments issued shelter-in-place orders compared to the total daily deaths 20 days later, the minimum amount of time medical experts believe it would take for initial exposure to the virus to lead to death.

In every case, he found the decline came long before the 20-day threshold. Stone says voluntary social distancing is effective: Cell phone tracking data indicate that people were socially distancing before the shelter-in-place orders, and the orders had a negligible effect on the extent of that distancing.

"People were already socially distancing before the lockdown. Social distancing works," says Stone.  

University of Colorado Denver economist Andrew I. Friedson disagrees. He co-authored a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research that says California's lockdown, the first in the nation, may have prevented more than 1,600 COVID deaths.

"California is a location where this could have gotten really bad, really quickly," he says. 

Friedson's model created a "synthetic" version of California that never locked down by taking the weighted average of other states that didn't impose shelter-in-place orders. Stone says the model is less useful than looking at actual outcomes and argues that their findings don't support the use of shelter-in-place orders.

"They find that their shelter-in-place reduced deaths beginning four days after it was implemented, which means that you must assume that…a considerable share of COVID-19 cases die four days after infection," says Stone. "The problem is that's not even long enough for the incubation time." 

Friedson concedes that social distancing behavior increased before the lockdowns, but he argues that the lockdowns increased the magnitude of the effects by forcing noncompliant individuals to stay home more.

"What we're talking about with this lockdown is that we're putting some extra juice behind this," says Friedson. 

The NBER paper estimates about one life saved for every 400 jobs lost, though Friedson says that as the total death toll rises over time, it's possible that job losses per life saved could be even higher.  

"What makes these numbers particularly slippery is that it's difficult to know how many of the job losses are temporary and come back when the disease is defeated," says Friedson. "It's also unclear how many of these lives saved are just deaths that are delayed." 

Stone says that what likely flattened the curve was voluntary social distancing, prompted by information about the dangers of the virus, in conjunction with the closure of schools and large assemblies.

Instead of shelter-in-place orders, he says the rest of the world should learn from the approach taken by Hong Kong, which never issued a stay-at-home order and has just four documented COVID-19 deaths. He says the city accomplished this by banning all travel from China early on, encouraging universal use of masks, and implementing mandatory, centralized quarantines of sick or exposed individuals.

The majority of US states have now significantly modifed their shelter-in-place orders. Even California, which never came close to seeing its hospitals overrun, began allowing more retailers to re-open for curbside pickup on May 8. But it remains committed to a largely top-down, technocratic approach.

"Unfortunately life comes with some risks," says Desmond. "To me it looks like the goalposts keep moving back….We shut these business down in a day. Why is it taking us so long to open them back up? We need to start." 

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Joshua Swain. 

Music Credits: "Comets and Sparks" by Sergey Cheremisinov is licensed under a Creative Commons license; "Hibernation" by Sergey Cheremisinov is licensed under a Creative Commons license; "By the Winds" by Sergey Cheremisinov is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

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