I enjoyed reading Christopher Snowdon’s critique of lockdown sceptics (“Rise of the Coronavirus Cranks”). Chris is a lively and entertaining writer and he does a great line in withering scorn (“There is no shortage of stupidity on Twitter, but this is something different, something almost transcendent”). He posed some tough questions for people like me—I’ve been editing a website called Lockdown Sceptics since April of last year—and he identified some key weaknesses in the anti-lockdown case. Having said that, I won’t bother responding to his detailed criticisms of Ivor Cummins and Michael Yeadon because I don’t think the case against the lockdown policy stands or falls on whether their analysis is correct.
We can quibble about the reliability of industrial-scale PCR testing, whether the “second wave” in Europe and America has been ameliorated by naturally acquired immunity and whether deaths due to other diseases have being wrongly classified as deaths due to novel coronavirus. But that is largely beside the point. Sceptics could concede all of Snowdon’s points—acknowledge that the threat posed by SARS-CoV-2 is every bit as grave as the most hard-line lockdowners say it is—without endangering the central limb of our argument. Our contention is that the whole panoply of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) that governments around the world have used to try and control the pandemic—closing schools and gyms, shutting non-essential shops, banning household mixing, restricting travel, telling people they can’t leave their homes without a reasonable excuse, etc.—have been largely ineffective.
Sure, there are some peer-reviewed studies published in reputable journals seeming to show that these measures reduce COVID-19 infections, hospital admissions, and deaths. (See here, for instance.) But most of these rely on epidemiological models that make unfalsifiable claims about how many people would have died if governments had just sat on their hands—and some of these models have been widely criticised. The evidence that lockdowns don’t work, by contrast, is not based on conjecture but on observing the effects of lockdowns in different countries. (You can review 30 of these studies here.) What these data seem to show is that the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in each country rises and falls—and then rises and falls again, although less steeply as the virus moves towards endemic equilibrium—according to a similar pattern regardless of what NPIs governments impose.
The factors that affect a population’s vulnerability to the disease are things like distance from the equator, previous exposure to other coronaviruses, and genetics, not how nimble or smart their political leaders are. (Although the timely introduction of port-of-entry controls for visitors from China may have contributed to the low COVID mortality in some Asian and Oceanic countries.) If lockdowns work, you’d expect to see an inverse correlation between the severity of the NPIs a country puts in place and the number of COVID deaths per capita, but you don’t. On the contrary, deaths per million were actually lower in those US states that didn’t shut down than in those that did—at least in the first seven-and-a-half months of last year. Trying to explain away these inconvenient facts by factoring in any number of variables—average age, hours of sunlight, population density—doesn’t seem to help. There’s no signal in that noise.
Incidentally, Snowdon’s claim that the first British lockdown reduced COVID infections is easy to debunk. You just look at when deaths peaked in England and Wales—April 8th—go back three weeks, which is the estimated time from infection to death among the roughly one in 400 infected people who succumb to the disease, and you get to March 19th, indicating infections peaked five days before the lockdown was imposed. Even Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, acknowledged that the reproduction rate was falling before the first hammer came down.
By contrast, the evidence that the policy responses to the pandemic have caused—and will cause—catastrophic harm is pretty strong. Shutting schools causes significant harm to all children, but particularly to the least well-off. Telling people they’re not allowed to socialise—no restaurants, bars, or café, no festivals or sporting events—has contributed to a mental health crisis that has seen “deaths of despair” spike up. Closing non-essential businesses and ordering everyone to stay at home has caused jaw-dropping economic contractions—the UK economy shrunk by 20.8 percent in Q2 of 2020—that have sent unemployment soaring and triggered a global economic recession that the World Bank estimates pushed between 88–115 million people into extreme poverty last year, with the total expected to rise as high as 150 million in 2021. Governments across the world have mothballed huge swathes of their economies in a largely futile attempt to mitigate the impact of the virus, burdening future generations with unmanageable national debts.
The counter-argument is that the economic damage, and the associated impact on public health, was inevitable—it’s a “pandemic effect” not a “lockdown effect.” Another unfalsifiable claim—or is it? Happily for lockdown sceptics, we have a “control” in the form of Sweden, the lone holdout against the groupthink that swept through the leaders of Western Europe in February and March of last year. The Swedish government didn’t impose a lockdown, yet its deaths per million in 2020 (from all causes) were bang on the European average, which is another inconvenient fact if you think lockdowns are a silver bullet. And while Sweden’s gross domestic product shrank by an estimated 2.9 percent last year, the eurozone’s shrank by 7.3 percent according to the European Central Bank.
Historically, we’ve almost never quarantined entire populations of healthy people to mitigate the impact of virus outbreaks—this approach was copied by other governments after the Chinese Communist authorities did it in Wuhan last year—which means we can compare the economic impact of SARS-CoV-2 with the H2N2 pandemic of 1957–58 and the H3N2 pandemic of 1968–69. There are no uncontested figures about how many people died in those pandemics, but various sources estimate that the second of these—Hong Kong flu—killed between one and four million people globally. The world’s population in 68–69 was roughly half what it is now, so the equivalent death toll today would be between two and eight million. Yet it caused barely a ripple in the global economy. True, there was a mild economic recession in the US in 1969–70, probably unrelated, but GDP only fell by 0.6 percent.
So have the sceptics misdiagnosed the cause of the worst global recession since the Second World War? It doesn’t look that way, although disentangling the “pandemic effect” from the “lockdown effect” is not straightforward. No doubt the pandemic would have had a negative impact on the global economy ceteris paribus, but it has surely been exacerbated by the lockdowns.
“The logic behind lockdowns is difficult to refute,” writes Snowdon. “If you reduce human interaction, you will reduce the virus’s ability to spread.” He’s right that lockdowns do seem logical, even if they’re historically unprecedented. This, I think, is one reason why the sceptics’ points have failed to land. Why haven’t lockdowns worked, given that they do reduce human interaction? The biggest weakness of our case is that we have plenty of data showing that forced restrictions on people’s movements have little or no impact on infections, but no over-arching hypothesis as to why that is. We can speculate, of course. Could it be because few countries have stopped people going to supermarkets, which means herding them into enclosed spaces where social distancing is hard to maintain? Because lockdowns have meant people spending more time in their homes, where virus particles are less likely to disperse than in the outdoors? Because “key workers” are still leaving their homes every weekday, often using public transport? Because masks have led people to behave incautiously, even though the RCT evidence suggests they do little to protect the wearer? Because so much secondary transmission is nosocomial (occurring in hospitals or care homes) and lockdowns have little impact on that? (By July 19th last year, as the first wave of the pandemic began to subside in Europe, 47 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Scotland had been reported in care homes.)
It’s probably a combination of all of these, as well as the fact that many of the behavioural changes mandated by lockdowns had already happened by the time they were imposed, with people reacting spontaneously to the pandemic—or, rather, all the scary stories pumped out by the mainstream media. It is worth reminding ourselves that the total number of healthy under-60 year-olds who died of COVID in NHS hospitals in England last year was 388.
One of the more bizarre claims by lockdown proponents in the UK is that the reason our country has the third highest COVID deaths per million in the world—in spite of three lockdowns—is because sceptics like me have dissuaded people from obeying the rules. That seems unlikely, given that the compliance of Britain’s population with the restrictions has remained high. Surveys indicate that “majority” compliance during the second lockdown was 90 percent or above, which is probably higher than that of neighbouring European countries which are lower down the mortality league table, such as Germany and Holland. Another reason it’s unlikely is that powerful forces have coalesced to suppress sceptical voices, with governments, public health authorities, and media companies all working hard to banish the heretics from the public square.
But even though sceptics lack a convincing hypothesis to explain why lockdowns don’t work, I don’t think we’re obliged to come up with one. Surely, the onus should be on governments to show that lockdowns work if they’re going to suspend their citizens’ civil liberties? For me, as a classical liberal, this is the most decisive argument against the draconian controls democratic governments have imposed in the hope of mitigating the impact of the virus. In the UK, one of the most high profile critics of the lockdown policy has been Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court justice. In a lecture last Autumn, he pointed out that the suspension of our liberties by the British Government “is the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country”—greater even than in war time. Not only has our government not persuasively demonstrated that this assault on our civil rights will prevent more harm than it causes, it hasn’t even made an attempt to do that.
At the meeting of the most important elected politicians in the UK on March 23rd where the Government announced it was placing the country under a hard lockdown, a lone voice belonging to Jesse Norman MP, a biographer of Edmund Burke, asked whether the Government had done a cost-benefit analysis of the health and economic impact that showed this suspension of our liberties would do more good than harm. “Around the room there were blank looks,” according to a report in the Financial Times.
For any democracy to take such a step without first satisfying itself that it was essential to prevent great harm befalling its citizens is, to my mind, unconscionable. And I’m surprised that Christopher Snowdon, as a Hayekian liberal, doesn’t share that view.
Photo by Dwayne Paisley-Marshall on Unsplash
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