Back in March, large portions of America embarked on a risky experiment without any real precedent in our history: To curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, governors and local officials imposed mass lockdowns that effectively crushed the economy in hopes of also crushing the virus.
We’ve learned a lot since then about the consequences of lockdowns. What’s the most important lesson?
“The evidence suggests lockdowns were an overly blunt and economically costly tool,” Wall Street Journal commentator Greg Ip wrote in late August. “They are politically difficult to keep in place for long enough to stamp out the virus. The evidence also points to alternative strategies that could slow the spread of the epidemic at much less cost. As cases flare up throughout the U.S., some experts are urging policy makers to pursue these more targeted restrictions and interventions rather than another crippling round of lockdowns.”
We should keep that in mind as the prospect of future COVID-19 lockdowns becomes an issue in the 2020 election. Amid the national debate, New York state just imposed new lockdowns in Brooklyn, Queens, and two suburban counties. Looking abroad, Israel re-imposed a nationwide lockdown last month, and various European governments are pushing local lockdowns. In Australia, the state government of Victoria — which includes Melbourne — is slowly lifting one of the toughest lockdowns in the world.
Public officials advocating fresh or continued lockdowns should read a new paper from researchers at Tel Aviv University.
“The peer-reviewed paper, which was accepted for publication in EMBO Molecular Medicine, compared data collected from the cellphones of iPhone users (Apple Mobility Data) to COVID-19 mortality data and found that the date on which social distancing began in different OECD countries is the best predictor of the mortality rate relative to the size of the population — with a delay of 7.49 days doubling the number of fatalities,” the Jerusalem Post reports. “In contrast, no statistical correlation was found between the number of fatalities and the duration, severity or even total lack of a lockdown in each country.”
Other research has likewise found no meaningful correlation between lockdowns and COVID-19 deaths per capita.
The debate inevitably turns to Sweden, which stood out among Western countries for refusing to lock down back in the spring (though Swedes also embraced voluntary social distancing). Critics of the Swedish approach note that the country’s per-capita COVID-19 death rate is much higher than that of its Nordic neighbors. Supporters reply that Sweden has a lower per-capita death rate than countries such as Belgium, Spain, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy — all of which imposed mass lockdowns.
Perceptions of Sweden’s success or failure have gone back and forth. In July, a New York Times headline blared: “Sweden Has Become the World’s Cautionary Tale.” Last week, however, the paper told a different story: “Vilified Early Over Lax Virus Strategy, Sweden Seems to Have Scourge Controlled.”
Time will tell. Since the latter article appeared, case numbers in Sweden have gone back up. Like other countries — including the U.S. — Sweden should have done far more to protect its nursing homes, where COVID-19 deaths were disproportionately concentrated. Yet its overall response to the virus looks better today than it did at the beginning of the summer.
At the very least, we can say that Sweden took the right approach on its schools, which have stayed open. As untold numbers of American children — and their parents — continue to struggle with remote learning, the case grows stronger for reopening those U.S. schools that remain closed.
The case for reopening elementary schools, in particular, seems overwhelming, given both the low risk of COVID-19 to younger children and the low risk of transmission from younger kids to teachers. Liberal journalist Thomas A. Frank made that case recently in Vanity Fair, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“As of September 16, 2020, according to the CDC, 92 children under 18 have died of COVID-19 since February 1 of this year,” Frank noted. “In that same stretch the flu has killed 123 children, and ordinary pneumonia has killed 313. Over 19,000 children have died of other causes.”
What about hospitalization rates and comorbidities?
“When it comes to hospitalization rates for children, they are no higher among those with COVID-19 than among those with the flu,” Frank observed. “Children who have died of COVID-19 seem already to have had serious health problems. For instance, a recent study from England of 651 people under 19 who got sick enough to be admitted to the hospital — meaning cases of already-exceptional severity — found that six died, all of whom ‘had profound comorbidity.’ This is echoed by a CDC statement: ‘Of the children who have developed severe illness from COVID-19, most have had underlying medical conditions.’”
None of this means schools should reopen without any new restrictions or precautions, such as facemasks, distancing, and ventilation checks. But it does mean that the costs of keeping schools closed outweigh the risks of opening them up.
As a group of Harvard public-health experts wrote in the Boston Globe this past summer:
“Prolonged time away from schools has led to months of lost learning and widened gaps in educational achievement, especially for some students of color and those in lower income households. Adding months more to this toll will be an educational disaster that some children may never recover from. School closures also threaten some children’s safety, due to increased child neglect, hurt children’s mental health, and keep many from getting enough to eat.”
This gets to the broader problem with COVID-19 lockdowns: They force people to make enormous economic, social, emotional, psychological, and health-care sacrifices in return for dubious benefits.
That’s why thousands of scientists and medical practitioners have signed the Great Barrington Declaration, a statement of opposition to COVID-19 lockdown policies that was authored by Dr. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard, Dr. Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford.
“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” it reads in part. “The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health — leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.
“Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.”
It’s a powerful statement, given the authors and signatories. One can only hope that it will encourage policymakers to embrace a more targeted and sustainable response to COVID-19.