As we begin to pick through the rubble of the early days of the coronavirus that started in Wuhan in an effort to determine with some specificity the origins of COVID-19, and whether it was accidentally or purposefully released from a Chinese lab, it is important, too, that we assess the wisdom of our public health approaches to the disease.
Chief among those approaches was the institution of lockdowns across a broad range of populations.
The pathologies of the lockdowns are clear and have been both predicted and recorded. They include increased risk of preventable deaths from cancer, heart disease, etc., as well as psychological trauma, resulting in increased homicides, accidents and suicidal ideations, caused by long periods of isolation.
What is less clear is whether the lockdowns served any useful medical purpose.
Fortunately, two researchers at the RAND Corporation and two researchers from the University of Southern California have done an analysis of the medical value of the lockdowns (which they refer to as “sheltering in place,” or SIP, policies). They looked at 43 countries and all of the states in the union, and published their assessment in June as a working paper of the National Bureau for Economic Research.
You may have missed the report. It has not received much coverage from the media, who must be busy with some incredibly important and hard-hitting story about Dr. Anthony Fauci or the first lady.
Let’s remedy that oversight.
The RAND/USC team is unsparingly direct: “[W]e fail to find that SIP policies saved lives. To the contrary, we find a positive association between SIP policies and excess deaths. We find that following the implementation of SIP policies, excess mortality increases.”
So, the lockdowns didn’t reduce the number of deaths, failed to prevent any excess deaths, and in fact resulted in increased deaths.
Additionally, countries that locked their citizens in their homes were experiencing declining — not increasing — excess mortality prior to lockdowns. In other words, lockdowns probably made the situation worse.
The researchers were again direct. “If SIP were implemented when excess deaths were rising then the results … would be biased towards finding that SIP policies lead to excess deaths. However, we find the opposite: countries that implemented SIP policies experienced a decline in excess mortality prior to implementation compared to countries that did not implement SIP policies.”
Moreover, unless you lived on an island, it did not seem to make any difference when the lockdowns were implemented. They were ineffectual at best and led to increased mortality at worst.
From the study: “It is also possible that the average effects in our event studies might hide heterogeneity (differences) in the impact of policies across countries and U.S. states. For example, SIP policies might be more effective when implemented early in the pandemic or SIP policies might work better when community transmission is high. … Overall, we find little evidence of heterogenous effects except that SIP policies seem to be more effective in island nations or … Hawaii.”
Finally, there was no advantage to locking down early or staying locked down longer. The researchers noted: “We failed to find that countries or U.S. states that implemented SIP policies earlier, and in which SIP policies had longer to operate, had lower excess deaths than countries/U.S. states that were slower to implement SIP policies.”
So, the duration of the lockdowns made no difference.
The simple fact is that COVID-19 was and is a highly infectious respiratory disease to which everyone is eventually going be exposed either naturally or through vaccines. The disease tends to kill older people and those with preexisting respiratory challenges or who are obese.
The RAND/USC study makes it clear that all the lockdowns accomplished was to add personal, psychological and economic devastation to the terrible personal and societal toll of illness and death.
Everyone involved — from President Trump and his public health advisers who initiated the first lockdown (remember “15 days to slow the spread”), right on through to those who continue to insist that isolation for everyone, even those not at risk, is the correct course of action — share the blame.
But all of us share the consequences.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to President Trump and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.