This story was updated Feb. 7, 2022.
Feb. 4, 2022 -- An analysis from a trio of economists says pandemic lockdowns during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic did little to reduce the number of COVID-related deaths.
Lockdowns in the United States and Europe reduced COVID-related deaths by only .2%, and shelter-in-placed orders reduced deaths by 2.9%, the study says.
The findings, which have not been peer reviewed, conflict with previous studies that found lockdowns worked.
One published in July 2020 in the British journal BMJ, for example, found that lockdowns helped reduce the number of COVID-19 cases.
And a May 2020 study out of Columbia University found nearly that 36,000 American lives would have been spared if strict social distancing measures had been enacted across the country just 1 week earlier than they were.
In the new paper, published in the journal Studies in Applied Economics, the authors looked at data from 34 other studies published by July 1, 2020, during the early part of the global pandemic. They looked at mortality rates but didn’t consider how lockdowns might have affected the number of infections or virus-related hospitalizations. They also didn’t use studies that forecast deaths.
The authors define lockdowns as “compulsory nonpharmaceutical interventions … that restrict internal movement, close schools and businesses, and ban international travel.” They didn’t consider government recommendations, information campaigns, mass testing, or vaccine measures.
The study says closing nonessential businesses appears to have had some positive effect and cut mortality rates 10.6%, probably because bars were closed. Mask mandates were not factored in because they found only one study on universal mask mandates done at that time.
They said lockdowns had a “devastating” effect on the economy and society, at least during the first wave of the pandemic.
“They [lockdowns] have contributed to reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, causing political unrest, contributing to domestic violence, and undermining liberal democracy,” they wrote. “These costs to society must be compared to the benefits of lockdowns, which our meta-analysis has shown are marginal at best. Such a standard benefit-cost calculation leads to a strong conclusion: lockdowns should be rejected out of hand as a pandemic policy instrument.”
Many people would have practiced safety measures even if governments had not ordered lockdowns once the pandemic began, the authors said.
“People respond to dangers outside their door. When a pandemic rages, people believe in social distancing regardless of what the government mandates,” they wrote.
The authors also said lockdowns may have unintended consequences. Shelter-in-place orders reduced the public’s access to safe spaces, such as parks, and isolated infected people in homes where their families were at higher risk of being infected themselves.
The authors of the study are Jonas Herby, a special adviser at the Center for Political Studies in Copenhagen, Denmark; Lars Jonung, PhD, a professor of economics at Lund University in Sweden; and Steve H. Hanke, founder and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.
Reaction to the paper’s release has been mixed. Many conservatives have seized on the paper to argue that lockdowns never worked and to criticize governments that implemented them. Other experts, meanwhile, point to what they see as major flaws in the report.
“Smoking causes cancer, the earth is round, and ordering people to stay at home (the correct definition of lockdown) decreases disease transmission,” Seth Flaxman, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, said in a statement. “. None of this is controversial among scientists. A study purporting to prove the opposite is almost certain to be fundamentally flawed.”
Samir Bhatt, a professor of statistics and public health at Imperial College London, senior author on the first ever study comparing the effect of lockdowns, question how the authors of the new study define “lockdown.”
“The authors define lockdown ‘as the imposition of at least one compulsory, non-pharmaceutical intervention’. This would make a mask wearing policy a lockdown,” Bhatt said in a statement. “For a meta-analysis using a definition that is at odds with the dictionary definition (a state of isolation or restricted access instituted as a security measure) is strange.”