In March 2020, when the WHO declared covid-19 a pandemic, there was understandably a lot of fear and uncertainty. We feared that covid-19 might be severe. We feared that the NHS might get overwhelmed. It was an unprecedented situation. It could have been an existential crisis for our species.
The state offered us a solution: a 3-week lockdown, to slow the spread of the virus, protect the NHS, flatten the curve, and thereby reduce the number of deaths to covid-19. We were assured that the number of deaths caused by a lockdown (from excess deaths due to heart attacks, suicide, etc) would be relatively few. So, based on an implicit utilitarian argument, lockdowns were recommended as the safer and wiser option.
Now, eight months later, we are still in lockdown, but with none of the fear or uncertainty that we had back in March. In those eight months, we have learned a lot about the benefits and the costs of lockdowns. It turns out that lockdowns save few lives, if any, but they kill many people. Consider the following evidence.
Lockdowns save few lives, if any
This can be seen in international comparisons, like UK v Sweden.
The magnitude and trend of the deaths-per-million are similar between the UK and Sweden. The UK has a 40% higher peak in Covid death rate than Sweden. There may be confounders that need to be adjusted for, but if lockdowns were effective, the difference should be obvious. Sweden was supposed to be a pile of corpses by now. The Ferguson model predicted 96,000 deaths in Sweden by July with no lockdown; thankfully the actual figure was just 5,530.
The burden of proof is on those who claim that lockdowns were effective to demonstrate it using data. In my assessment, from comparing the death rates between countries and between U.S. states, there is no clear evidence that lockdowns saved lives. If lockdowns saved any lives at all, then it was few.
This is backed up by multiple studies of the question:
- “Our analysis shows that this is a constant pattern across countries. Surprisingly, this pattern is common to countries that have taken a severe lockdown, including the paralysis of the economy, as well as to countries that implemented a far more lenient policy and have continued in ordinary life.” Ben-Israel, Apr 2020
- “We provide estimates of the death toll in the absence of any lockdown policies, and show that these strategies might not have saved any life in western Europe. We also show that neighboring countries applying less restrictive social distancing measures (as opposed to police-enforced home containment) experience a very similar time evolution of the epidemic” Meunier, May 2020
- “A Bayesian inverse problem approach applied to UK data on COVID-19 deaths and the published disease duration distribution suggests that infections were in decline before UK lockdown, and that infections in Sweden started to decline only a short time later” Wood, Jun 2020
- “We found that closure of education facilities, prohibiting mass gatherings and closure of some nonessential businesses were associated with reduced incidence whereas stay at home orders, closure of all non-businesses and requiring the wearing of facemasks or coverings in public was not associated with any independent additional impact.” Hunter, Jul 2020
- “Rapid border closures, full lockdowns, and wide-spread testing were not associated with COVID-19 mortality per million people.” Chaudry et al, Aug 2020
- “I find no clear association between lockdown policies and mortality development” Bjornskof, Aug 2020
- “Most of the slowing and reversal of COVID-19 mortality is explained by the build-up of herd immunity” Colombo, Sep 2020
- “The United Kingdom’s lockdown was both superfluous and ineffective.” Kuhbandner et al, Nov 2020
- “Stringency of the measures settled to fight pandemia, including lockdown, did not appear to be linked with death rate.” De Larochelambert, Nov 2020
Lockdowns kill many people
Lockdowns kill in a number of ways, and victims of lockdowns tend to be younger and poorer than covid-19 victims. In the first two months of lockdown, there were significant excess deaths from dementia, Alzheimer’s, heart attacks, and strokes.
Delays in cancer screenings, referrals and treatments will result in excess cancer deaths in the coming years. Richard Sullivan, professor of cancer and global health at King’s College London, said “Most modellers in the UK estimate excess of deaths [from cancer] is going to be way greater than we are going to see with Covid-19”. Cancer patients being generally much younger than Covid patients, he added that “years of lost life will be quite dramatic” on top of “a huge amount of avoidable mortality”.
The mental health cost of lockdowns has been huge. Anxiety, depression, stress, substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicidal ideation are all on the rise. Research estimates “deaths of despair” (suicide, drug overdoses, etc) in the U.S. due to lockdown at between 28,000 and 150,000. A study from Australia estimated that suicide deaths due to lockdown are likely to exceed covid deaths.
It is the developing world that is hit the hardest by lockdowns. The UN has reported that 66 million children could fall into extreme poverty, and 132 million people are at risk of starvation, due to lockdown-induced disruptions of supply chains. The NYT reports that there will be 1.4 million excess tuberculosis deaths, 500,000 excess HIV deaths, and 385,000 malaria deaths due to lockdowns. UNICEF warns of over 6,000 child deaths for every day of lockdown, equating to 1.2 million child deaths for every six months that lockdowns continue.
The WHO itself now advises against lockdowns as a primary means of controlling the virus. Over 12,000 medical and public health scientists and over 37,000 medical practitioners have now signed the Great Barrington Declaration, calling for an end to lockdowns.
A global repository for research into the collateral effects of lockdowns has been created: Collateral Global. Here are some of the studies:
- “Lockdowns were desperate, defendable choices when we knew little about covid-19. But, now that we know more, we should avoid exaggeration. We should carefully and gradually remove lockdown measures, with data driven feedback on bed capacity and prevalence/incidence indicators. Otherwise, prolonged lockdowns may become mass suicide” Ionnadis, Jun 2020
- “The costs of continuing severe restrictions are so great relative to likely benefits in lives saved that a rapid easing in restrictions is now warranted.” Miles et al, Aug 2020
- “A national lockdown has a moderate advantage in saving lives with tremendous costs and possible overwhelming economic effects” Shlomai et al, Sep 2020
The decision to lockdown was made in circumstances of fear and uncertainty. There was a reasonable utilitarian argument that a 3-week lockdown was going to be the best course of action; in terms of saving lives, not locking down appeared to many to be the bigger risk.
The fear and uncertainty are now abated, and we know a lot more about Covid-19 and the effects of lockdowns. There is a growing body of evidence that lockdowns kill more people than they save. Indeed, lockdowns kill more people than Covid-19 itself, and the victims of lockdowns are younger and poorer than the victims of Covid-19.
Lockdowns are immoral, destructive, and dehumanising. To this list we can now add unnecessary, ineffective, and deadly.
If you supported lockdown on the basis that it would save lives, please review and consider this evidence of the devastating effects of lockdowns. If you still think lockdowns are a good idea, make a counterargument.