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Enough With the Phoney ‘Lockdown’ Debate

On March 15th, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee ordered all bars, restaurants and recreational facilities closed. The next day, New York followed suit, in a move coordinated with New Jersey and Connecticut. In Florida, by contrast, Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t issue a stay-at-home order until April 1st, more than two weeks later. And in Sweden, there was never any real lockdown, even if bars and restaurants there have been operating under restrictions that govern use and occupancy.

Four jurisdictions. Four different lockdown timetables. Imagine if we were able to plot an index of human activity in these four places. These graphs would show, one might predict, that things were going along fairly normally, perhaps starting to dip, until a lockdown went into effect, and then activity levels plunged abruptly.

It so happens we can plot such an index, because Moovit, an Israeli-based transit-app service provider, has released its metadata in regard to ridership in dozens of cities around the world. And in the graph below, which I created based on Moovit’s numbers, you can see ridership (expressed in percentage terms, as a deviation from original baseline) versus time for four municipal groupings, corresponding to the above-listed jurisdictions: Seattle, New York City, Miami, and Stockholm. Without a legend to tell you which line matches with which city, can you tell which is which?

Seattle is shown in green. Its residents began staying at home on March 6th—more than a week before the state governor issued his order. While one might expect New York City to track closely with Seattle, given that the applicable state orders in New York and Washington were just 24 hours apart, the plunge in New York City/New Jersey ridership (Moovit lumps the two together), shown in purple, lags Seattle by a week.

In fact, the NYC/NJ data tracks very closely with that of Miami, shown in red, despite Florida’s (widely criticized) lockdown lag. Meanwhile, residents of two Swedish cities—Stockholm and the smaller Uppsala (grouped together by Moovit)—began staying at home slightly before New Yorkers, despite the fact that few were required by law to do so, either then or now. Here is another version of the same graph, but with the cities marked.

There’s a funny satirical article that’s been making the rounds titled Graph Lover Doesn’t Want This Sh*t To End. I will confess that it hits very close to home. And I realize that many readers may have already had it up to the gills with graphical depictions of COVID-19’s health and socioeconomic effects. But some of us are even more exasperated with the overheated politics surrounding the “lockdown debate”—the running, roiling argument about when and how governments should continue to lift the restrictions put in place during March and April.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this kind of data in recent weeks, and trying to tease out the policy ramifications. One of the trends that’s jumped out is that lockdown orders have tended to ratify public behaviour as much as prescribe or circumscribe it. Seattle residents essentially began imposing a lockdown on themselves before their government did, because the city had become one of the country’s leading early COVID-19 hotspots. Likewise, most Swedes didn’t need their government to tell them to stay home. Like everyone else, they get their news from the globalized data dump and anxiety mill known as social media. They all saw what was happening in Italy and elsewhere.

And this is why I find the lockdown debate so phoney. It’s been fuelled, on both sides, by the presumption that government decrees work as a sort of magic wand that will bring our economies (and perhaps the most acute phase of the pandemic) back to life. But the data suggest there is no magic wand. Much of the lockdown effect was imposed not by top-down fiat, but through millions of small decisions made every day by civic groups, employers, unions, trade associations, school boards and, most importantly, ordinary people.

Here in Toronto, where I live, for instance, I know relatively few people whose decision to work from home (or not work at all) was dictated by government order. Most white-collar employers told workers to stay at home days or weeks before official rules went into effect. And many service industries closed up shop because there simply weren’t any customers. Electricity-usage data reported by the New York Times, similarly, show that people became homebodies well before they were required to do so.

Source: New York Times 

An understanding of the crowdsourced nature of the lockdown seems absent from a lot of the most detailed commentary that one sees on offer. Consider the website Lockdown Sceptics, featuring the work of my Quillette colleague Toby Young, which recently published a detailed critique of the influential COVID-19 epidemiological models produced by Neil Ferguson and his colleagues at Imperial College London.

As someone who once earned a pay-check writing similar (albeit more primitive) mathematical models back in the 1990s, I take a pedant’s interest in such intellectual excursions. (To wit: I would argue that the author’s central point of attack—the non-deterministic aspect of Ferguson’s model—is completely beside the point. All non-linear, iterative dynamical systems, such as are represented by this kind of epidemiological model, tend to generate output that’s massively sensitive to initial conditions and operating parameters. And so they are invariably non-deterministic to begin with. I also didn’t appreciate the author’s drive-by on FORTRAN, my old programming language. But I digress.) In truth, however, it was never necessary for this (or any) author to dive into the innards of Ferguson’s model to understand how divorced from reality it was. One merely had to read the original March 16th Imperial College report, which presumed to model various aspects of society’s functioning with a binary sawtooth function—100 percent or zero, and nothing in between—according to the imposed legal regime. Consider Figure 4 from that report, reproduced below, in which policy changes, which are triggered on and off according to intensive-care-unit usage, generate rolling waves of huge infection spikes.


That kind of model would make complete sense in a universe where government had the power to dictate our behaviour completely, in the way that someone flicks a light switch. But as the transit data would suggest, it doesn’t. Even if every government on Earth lifted the lockdown tomorrow, those transit numbers probably wouldn’t pass the 50 percent threshold for months. Getting back to 100 percent may take years—if it ever happens at all.

The skeptics who argue that lockdowns “don’t work” usually will support this claim by ticking off nations or regions that have succeeded in fighting off serious COVID-19 outbreaks without imposing harsh government restrictions. But when you parse the actual data, what you find is that these tend to be high-trust, high-education, high-information societies—such as in Scandinavia and East Asia—where official lockdowns haven’t been necessary precisely because a critical mass of people have effectively locked themselves down on their own. If spring-breakers in Miami were as conscientious and disciplined as, say, most office workers in Stockholm or Tokyo, the state’s governor wouldn’t have had to clear the beaches. But they’re not, so he did. Such spectacles tell us a lot about college students, but not much about lockdowns.

The crowdsourced aspect of lockdowns is bad news and good news. It’s bad news because getting all of society’s actors on the same page will take many months. And so, as state-level data already show, we won’t be able to get our economies up and running on anything like the speedy timeline that most self-styled lockdown opponents are seeking. But it’s also good news, because a slower, crowdsourced form of lockdown lifting will be subject to a whole slew of negative feedback mechanisms among ordinary people and employers, such that localized outbreaks naturally lead to corrections. And so we can avoid the problem, depicted in Ferguson’s graphs, by which sudden quantum shifts in centralized policy yield behavioural spikes whose catastrophic effects set off an endless wave of epidemiological boom and bust.

To repeat, the analytical mistakes being made here are not unique to lockdown proponents or “skeptics.” Both sides of the debate systematically overestimate the role of government, largely because arguing about what government should or shouldn’t be doing, while assuming this question to be the key to success or failure, has become the go-to reflex of pundits and even many public-health officials. But by indulging these reflexes, we expose our wilful blindness to both the surprisingly marginal role of government in many aspects of lockdown policy, and the semi-permanence of many mitigation strategies that already have been imposed by countless civic and economic actors. Indeed, while reading the broadsides that emit from both camps, I often think these people should all just get out more and see what is actually happening beyond their web browsers and spreadsheets.

My neighbourhood Greek bakery, for instance, is a place where every other customer seems to be 90 years old, where most of the business comes from loyal regulars, and where a good many transactions once were conducted amidst a flurry of warm hugs, handshakes, kisses, gossip, and complaints. (This is charming in theory, but annoying when you’re standing in line for Greek donuts.) The bakery stayed open these last two months because it is an “essential service.” But there are no more hugs and kisses and hair touslings and pinches of annoyed little girls’ cheeks. Counter-to-ceiling plastic shields have gone up to protect the cashiers. Dots on the floor tell us where to stand. You can’t use cash, just credit-card tap. Now— Opa!—please take your galaktoboureko and leave.

Little of this self-imposed “lockdown-lite” is going to change in coming weeks and months, regardless of what government does, even as the masks come off and the floor dots start to fade. The changes we’ve made are sociologically sticky and, in some cases, literally hard-bolted into our public architecture.

In fact, many of the most important mitigation strategies are unknown to the general public because they’ve taken place behind closed doors on the initiative of employers, not bureaucrats, and have little or nothing to do with legal mandates (which are themselves, as I can attest is the case here in Canada, a contradictory, hastily-conceived patchwork of federal and provincial directives and advisories). To give but one example I happen to be familiar with: Many of the men and women you see driving delivery trucks and construction vehicles are now governed by all sorts of rules, at pickup and drop-off, that allow them to perform their functions without coming within six feet of others. In some cases, they’ve been enabled with apps on their phones or dash-mounted tablets that permit them to coordinate these functions without any direct on-site human interaction whatsoever. Or they might be subject to thermometer-gun screenings to determine if they have a fever. Having implemented these lockdown-lite policies at great cost and inconvenience, employers aren’t going to dump them the moment the government gives them permission to do so, even though these procedures have increased costs and decreased output.

Many employers I speak to are actually far more constricted by the concerns of their own employees than by the law itself. At one workplace that I know of, the boss announced that loosened provincial restrictions mean that everyone can come back to work this month. To his surprise, his employees announced that they’d voted on the issue through Facebook, and, no, they would not be coming back, at least not yet. And in Quebec, which is starting to let elementary-school students come back to class this month, thousands of parents—a majority at some schools—have decided to keep their children home. I am told by reliable sources within my own family that some of these parents are even pressuring their neighbours to do likewise, and are shaming dissenters on social media as bad parents. It’s lockdown by mob.

To some extent, I find this attitude of populist hyper-vigilance to be exasperating, because sending your young kids to school is now generally safe (and, selfishly, because I think my own seven-year-old could benefit from getting back to a structured education environment). But we got into this mess by letting our guard down, and so it’s not surprising that many ordinary people want to err on the other side of the equation for a month or three. Whatever your views, though, if you’re all in a fuss about lockdown policy, please remember that the real lockdown was never imposed by government. It turns out that it was inside each and every one of us all along.


Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette. He tweets at @jonkay.

Featured image: Photo by David Baxendale: Glasgow Lockdown, 2020.


  1. You’ve entirely missed the point, Mr. Kay, and I would hope it isn’t a deliberate misrepresentation of the anti-tyranny position; I had thought you more capable than that.

    If consumer demand craters the economy, it’s a matter of individual choice, not government fiat. It’s that simple. The controversy centers around threats of force. Each and every lockdown has been imposed with the force of law. Behind every law is a person that is authorized to put a bullet in your head, should you ultimately fail to comply with the chain of consequences.

    But you know all this. That you would frame this as a phony debate is very disappointing. At least in America, the debate is completely and entirely about the use of deadly force and unconstitutional surveillance, not consumer and worker choice.

    I generally admire and enjoy your writing, and sincerely hope that this article does not indicate the beginning of a trend.

  2. It was government-employed public health experts who prophesized Armageddon if severe lockdown measures were not employed. The media amplified those dire warnings, everyone became terrified, and government lockdown orders ensued. Many employers went above and beyond in an effort to protect their employees, yes. But to argue, on that basis, that “[m]uch of the lockdown effect was imposed not by top-down fiat, but through millions of small decisions made every day by civic groups, employers, unions, trade associations, school boards and, most importantly, ordinary people” . . . that’s just downright incorrect. All these groups and people were following the tone and advice of their government and its experts, as amplified by the media. This tone and this advice preceded the “government decrees” themselves.

    Most “lockdown skeptics” are simply asking these public health experts to look at the data suggesting that the cure is worse than the disease, and to drop their apocalyptic tone accordingly, for it is that tone that is driving the behavior, whether mandated or not, of the lockdown. This won’t happen, of course, because those same experts are desperate to escape responsibility for their outrageous pronouncements, and this time around they finally found a way to do so–a society-wide lockdown. It is so difficult to disentangle the effects of the lockdown from the effects of the virus that it may be years before anyone has to admit that they were wrong at all. By then, no doubt, we’ll have already moved on to the next “crisis”, and history will repeat itself.

  3. Not sure about this article. Remove consideration of whether or not the lockdown was the right thing/the required thing to do. THere is a fundamental difference btw people choosing to do something, vs enforced compliance.

  4. I’ll re-read the piece, Kyle, and revise or retract in light of that second reading, but you’re absolutely spot-on about my viewing his writing through a filter. It’s one of pure unadulterated rage over the disgraceful exhibitions of tyranny here in America. Thanks for the perspective and I’ll review in the morning when my mind is a bit less weary.

    Between the imprisonments, beatings, governmental takings of private property and unlawful surveillance, the American debate over this situation is a matter of supreme importance to a growing percentage of the citizenry.

    A Texan of my acquaintance captured the zeitgeist pretty well when he said “If they want to ask me to stay home for a while and wear masks and suchlike, I’ll consider doing it, but when they try to tell me at gunpoint, they’re going to have a problem…”

    In a democracy, they govern by consent, not decree. To the degree that Mr.Kay’s article acknowledges that, I applaud him for doing so. For government to follow, however, it would be issuing strong advisories, not executive orders leveraging public health orders’ usually very limited ability to suspend civil rights, and then attempting to extend their diktat interminably through manipulation of public opinion by means of obscurantist propaganda.

  5. No, it’s not just you. For 20 years at least, white collar workers - not all, but many - have been telling journalists that they would prefer to work from home but their employers won’t allow it.

    Until now.

    And I suppose there’s some hope for many that when the COVID-crisis is over, the routine of working from home will gain some permanence.

  6. The main message of this article seems to me to be that people in general are smarter and more responsible than both most governments and the media have expected of them.

    This is good news for (almost) everyone:

    • Supporters of the lockdown can rejoice that the majority of people have taken precautions even without instructions from their government.

    • Critics of the government enforced lockdown measures are proven right by these charts that state coercive measures were largely unnecessary.

    • Libertarians will rightly cite this as an example of how people can be trusted to behave like adults and make good decisions on their own initiative.

    • Authoritarians can, uh, well - you can’t please everybody, can you?

  7. There’s also a Constitution thingy.

  8. I am definitely one of those graphs-lovers that is enjoying all the data and discussion surrounding the coronavirus. The transport data is very interesting, thank you Mr Kay for reporting it! Keep these articles coming, pandemic is bringing out your best.

    Exponential growth is a frightful thing. I don’t think the media really needed to do much more than report the numbers for people to become alarmed. It was an alarming situation. People voted with their feet and their Facebook likes, and governments were responsive to that. We needed to get the situation under control so we could figure out what the heck was going on. Now we know: the virus is more contagious but less deadly than we thought, with huge amounts of asymptomatic spread. Most of the death is occurring in old age homes.

    Now that we’ve flattened the curve and ramped up medical capacity, it’s time to have a global conversation about what the best strategy for moving forward will be. There is no singular solution appropriate for every time, place, and person. Governments should therefore issue guidelines appropriate to local conditions (population density, elder concentration, ect) and supports for vulnerable populations, but let people make the choices for themselves.

  9. Interesting graphs. Good article. A few thoughts.

    • People were already self distancing so was this the cause of the decrease of was the virus already waning? SARS Cov1did not come back and bring a “second wave.”
    • How are the deaths being reported. Two of my friends mothers were in hospice in Colorado - they tested them for Covid (they were in a nursing home) and they died in the last two weeks. I do have issue with someone already in hospice being tested. One was very concerned because her mother had tested positive. I’m not being crass but she was already “in hospice.”
    • I want a real understanding of the deaths. Not just ages, comorbidities please. When people keep saying the young are dying - well let’s see. It can’t be like other pandemics which easily took young and old alike - age does seem to be the major contributing factor. At our local - not at all busy hospital - we have someone on our block who works there says 95%+ is from nursing homes (100% of the deaths).
    • I watched Cuomo tell us 73 children had Kawasaki disease and I looked up on the CDC website and it said that in the US 3000 are diagnosed with that disease each year from infection - it’s like a childhood bad reaction to infection. How many kids die of sepsis or some other thing each year too? Pneumonia - #1 hospitalization of children each year and I believe world killer of children.
    • We will see what happens when the states open up - remember there is a lag - which some idiots can seem to get - really three to five week or longer. So time will tell. Maybe it’s gone, comes back, or “the second wave.” But I reason if things don’t get worse people will be angry for the lock-ups.
    • I’m curious how to deal with 30 million people out of work in a few months if things don’t pick back up. At least the stock market thinks it’s all going to be okay. We are really going to see it all happen in real time.
    • Also, How many people die of hospital infections? These healthcare associated infections - last year killed approx. 130,000. No one until now stayed away from the hospital because of that or refused to have elective surgery. I think we could set the current media onto this no one would set foot into a hospital ever again.
    • Finally, people don’t understand that organizations like the CDC or FDA in America and their equivalents elsewhere are really not equipped to run pandemics. No country can truly be prepared. There is just never enough money to wait for the impending next pandemic. Who knows what is will be. Turns out we didn’t need all the ventilators. South Korea and Germany did great in testing because they make the tests there. One reason Germany has a low death rate is that they are testing more of their general population.
    • It’s really gives insights on how politicians make decisions. The effect who is surrounding them at the moment and how social media and public opinion factor in. Very interesting. Again we are seeing this in real time.
  10. Much of people’s ideas of good governance is based on a Lord of the Flies model of the world, that people left unsupervised will descend into barbaric savagery. But that story was fiction written by a depressive alcoholic. Here’s the true one. The boys… co-operated and helped one another.

    It may be that the voluntary measures people were taking, especially if encouraged by government, would have been enough to suppress the virus to keep it within the capacity of the healthcare system (which was the original aim of the lockdown measures, though some governments have shifted the goalposts since). Nobody tried to find out, they just went straight for authoritarianism.

  11. I am not a lawyer, but I read enough about constitutional issues that I’ll offer some thoughts:

    • States have regulatory powers that are referred to as general “police powers” and are considered to be broader than the enumerated powers of the federal government. That’s historically been seen as consistent with the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” It’s why so many federal regulatory statutes hinge on a constitutional argument that they regulate interstate commerce in some manner (as that’s an enumerated federal power in the Constitution).

    • Governors - and often mayors and county executives - have very broad emergency powers under state statutes. These vary to some degree from state to state, but it’s not far off to describe them as borderline dictatorial during a declared emergency. For example,here is the statute for the state of Washington - . Some of these powers explicitly contradict aspects of the Bill of Rights: for example, square “an order prohibiting … any number of persons, as designated by the governor, from assembling or gathering on the public streets, parks, or other open areas of this state, either public or private” with First Amendment freedom of assembly. There’s also a catch-all “prohibiting … such other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.”

    • The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution was not generally applied to actions by state and local governments until the 20th century. The legal idea was referred to as “incorporation” and based on a reading of the 14th Amendment’s right to due process. For example, Supreme Court rulings between the 1920’s and 1940’s did this with the First Amendment. I bring this up because it provides an indication of the period of time during which federal legal challenges to state and local emergency powers were consistent with prior caselaw. That period is far shorter than the history of the country.

    • I am not aware of a history of legal challenges in federal courts to these state and local emergency powers, though it’s possible that such cases do exist and I’m simply not aware of them. One point I’ll note is that these emergency powers have historically been deployed for limited periods of time to put in place measures such as curfews during riots or mandatory evacuation orders during hurricanes. Because the issue of standing - an active controversy - matters so much for getting courts to take action, it’s possible that they’ve largely (or completely) ducked the issue because the most draconian historical uses of these emergency powers have been for very limited time periods of a couple weeks or less.

    • For core constitutional rights, federal courts will employ a standard of “strict scrutiny” when evaluating government action, meaning that the action must further a compelling government interest and be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. That is almost certainly the standard used if a lockdown order touches on rights such as freedom of religion or freedom of speech (especially political speech - such as protests).

    • There has been at least one case where a federal judge limited part of a lockdown order. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order stating that a drive-in church service - i.e., a service where people would remain in their cars - could proceed in Louisville ( ).

    • U.S. Attorney General Barr has said that the Department of Justice will intervene on the side of plaintiffs if it feels that certain provisions of state lockdown orders have gone “too far” in infringing civil liberties - . It’s done so in a case in Mississippi, which also involved a drive-in church service.

  12. Great story, and good comment, apart from one thing. The reciprocal systems which been bred into us over the last 50,000 years are great when we are dealing person-to-person or operating in small groups of up to 150 people. There are not so well adapted when it comes to living in complex and large societies. In addition, people believe in their own morality in the same way they believe in their own always superior driving skills. Not everyone can be a better than average driver, just as not everyone can be possessed of superior morality.

    It’s why so many people believe Socialism could work, if only it were done right- as though the special insight they can offer, will somehow change the result. All dysfunctional societies come into being because they give license to people to inflict their superior morality on others. They offer people the potential to influence others, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the only means of enforcing this influence is through pooling resources with a group, the synthesis of the mob.

    It’s a zero sum game which requires deviants, heretics and offenders to practice upon- who are just ordinary people, who happen to find themselves under the spotlight on the mob glare. Small groups are largely immune to this, because actually knowing and somewhat liking the person you intend to correct, acts as a counter to mob possession. Deeply rooted in this pathology is the urge to punish, to single out the transgressor who won’t conform to the standards of your own superior personal morality, when really it’s the fact that they are frustrating the exercise of personal power which lies at the root of the need to punish. Even individuals within the mob itself can become targets, if they frustrate the ambition to influence of others in the group.

    We are seeing tinges of Socialism in the way that some are responding to COVID-19. Some want to suppress unpopular viewpoints, especially those sceptical of longer term lockdowns. Others have elected themselves petty enforcers, phoning police when they groups of three people taking their exercise, or fathers playing with their kids on their front lawns. Like Socialism it offers the promise of making others conform to our own higher moral standards, and puff-up our own self-important influence over the world and others.

    The way out of this madness is heterodox economics. By specialising, we can bring value to others. It confines this urge to authoritarianism to a tightly confined band of excellence. And it works, because who wouldn’t want advice on what to do, or how to do it, from an acknowledged expert in their field, who stands above the ordinary- whether it be from a plumber, a gym owner or a doctor.

    But we should always be wary of illusory competence and the urge to exercise unearned power over others, because the ability to influence others should always be balanced by the personal sacrifice necessary, in terms of time and effort, to acquire skills and knowledge that are worth imparting to others. Without this dynamic, all political power is unsolicited advice, administered at gun point.

  13. You have a middle of the road stance on this topic like your compatriot Kay. Perhaps it is good and well for Canadians. Maybe you are young and strong as a people and can cope with all the negative effects of the crisis. Maybe. It’s a great maybe. But I’m sure of one thing : here, in the old Europe, we can’t indulge ourselves by stopping the machine for a long time, let alone a number of times, because there are many chances it never starts again as before (and before was not great yet). People are old by here, naturally frightened as it were, fanatic adepts of the Precautionary Principle with caps and the nanny state. So, il was the worst signal to send to the population. MSM, medical experts and of course governements have pushed the fear button to the max for a not so big epidemic (in the course of a century, I even dare say it is minor). So what’s next? When the next epidemic comes, flu or whatever it is, what will happen? I think this time, the big men won’t have to push the fear button, people will do it before (Kay is right on this point : the percentage of folks that are still afraid to get back to work as we have a daily death count with two digits is simply astounding). Damned be the nanny state! They really believe that money will come in their pocket by the magic of politicians’ promises! As for the already not healthy Club Med countries, they are almost damned, all the more there will have no tourist during months, years…
    No, as for here, I don’t see too well the light at the end of the tunnel.

  14. What I see is that there are a good many people in our society who believe that the testimony of eyewitnesses is essentially worthless.

    To their way of thinking, only studies and graphs, prepared by people they don’t know and will never meet, can accurately describe the world to us.

  15. I was in favour of locking down briefly to cut the spread, study the disease and prepare ourselves, but it is past time to reopen now. What seems to be preventing this is that the left has added adherence to social distancing to their elaborate array of customs. It’s the hip new way to virtue signal. Add a Facebook filter, share adulatory memes about heroic medical staff, shame people who want to reopen or worry about economic consequences.

    Much of it does seem to be more about prohibiting fun than spreading the disease. My apartment building’s pool was declared closed, even though the notice itself acknowledges the chlorine would kill the virus. Even the most crowded beaches are unlikely vectors for the disease, but they’ve been closed anyway. Anyone seen having too much fun is regarded with derision, and the bar for “fun” has been set cruelly low.

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