A new Johns Hopkins study published this week found that COVID-19 lockdowns towards the beginning of the pandemic had “little to no effect” on the COVID-19 mortality rate and “should be rejected out of hand as a pandemic policy.”

The researchers, led by the head of Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, conducted a meta-analysis of 34 studies from the first wave of the pandemic and found that U.S. and European lockdowns, which were held up as an effective tool at limiting deaths, “reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% on average.” 

If anything, the shelter-in-place orders and forced limiting of gatherings outdoors may have actually “increased” the death rate by requiring people to stay at home with vulnerable family members, the authors argued.

“We find no evidence that lockdowns, school closures, border closures, and limiting gatherings have had a noticeable effect on COVID-19 mortality,” they wrote. 

The decision to shut down “non-essential” businesses, such as bars, was the only lockdown policy the researchers found to be somewhat effective. But even that policy did more harm than good, they argued, citing several of the lockdowns’ “devastating effects.”

“They have contributed to reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, causing political unrest, contributing to domestic violence, and undermining liberal democracy,” the report said. 

In other words, lockdowns were a failure that might have cost more lives than they saved. For example, from May 2020 to April 2021, drug overdose deaths increased by 28.5% from the year before. Domestic violence incidents increased 8.1%. Depression rates tripled in adults in all demographic groups, and suicide attempts among young children and teenagers skyrocketed.

We can’t undo the damage that has been done, but we can make sure it never happens again. Government and public health officials should be pressed to respond to this study’s findings and made to say whether they would support lockdowns in the future. We cannot afford to risk repeating this devastating mistake, and our leaders just never be allowed to think that they can.

That also means they must reject the zero-COVID strategy still dominating everyday life in many liberal parts of the country. We have to learn with this virus, and our leaders should be encouraging this shift by focusing only on mortality rates, rather than case rates, and loosening restrictions to allow individuals to weigh the risks for themselves. 

If we’ve learned anything over the past two years, it’s that a one-size-fits-all approach to public health does not work. In fact, it can often be counterproductive, as this study shows. The sooner our government accepts that, the sooner we can start to put the pandemic and the damage it has caused behind us.