A recent paper that examined over 100 COVID-19 studies has revealed that government-mandated lockdowns fail any reasonable cost/benefit analysis by a significant ratio.
Published in the International Journal of the Economics of Business, the study found that lockdowns have only marginally reduced COVID-19 deaths, but come with enormous long-term costs that far outweigh their benefits.
Authored by Canadian economics professor and prolific academic Douglas W. Allen, the study concluded that “lockdowns are not just an inefficient policy, they must rank as one of the greatest peacetime policy disasters of all time”.
Allen’s paper, entitled COVID-19 Lockdown Cost/Benefits: A Critical Assessment of the Literature, begins with a bombshell revelation: no government anywhere has provided any formal cost/benefit analysis of their lockdown policies to the public.
Instead, they relied on early modelling that vastly overestimated COVID deaths, significantly overstated the benefits of lockdowns, and ignored most of the potential costs that would result from these policies.
COVID Deaths Were Overestimated
As governments have shifted their aims from ‘flattening the curve’ to any number of other objectives, Allen explains that “the average citizen and business person has had to trust that such a blunt and destructive policy tool was justified in the face of a novel viral pandemic.”
Non-essential businesses, education, recreation, and spiritual facilities have been forced to close, shelter-in-place policies have been enforced, and citizens have endured major restrictions on private social gatherings. Writes Allen, these policies have relied on the intuition that:
a physical, government mandated, intervention that isolates people and slows down the transmission of the virus can reduce the spike of infections, allow hospitals to cope given their capacity constraints, postpone deaths, and possibly reduce deaths until a vaccine can be created.
Allen explains that a model widely relied upon by governments early in the pandemic was that by Neil Ferguson et al. (2020). It predicted some 490,000 UK deaths in the first wave; 2.2 million deaths in the United States, and 267,000 in Canada—numbers they believed could be reduced by around 50 per cent with lockdowns.
In fact, the first wave saw death tallies of 41,000, 153,000, and 9,000 respectively in those countries. In other words, Ferguson’s dire predictions meant that the benefits of lockdowns were spectacularly overstated by multiples of between 6 and 15.
The Ferguson model warned that “the social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound” but still concluded that “epidemic suppression [i.e. lockdown] is the only viable strategy at the current time”.
And the rest is history.
Lockdown Benefits Were Overestimated
Most lockdown modelling assumes that, without a lockdown order in place, people will not modify their behaviour. But this is not how people actually behave.
The study noted that “if new infections and daily deaths from the disease grow too high, people take costly efforts to avoid interaction and thus slow disease spread.” As a result of this misunderstanding, much research has wrongly attributed the benefits of good decision-making by individuals to lockdown mandates. Allen offers a corrective:
Any empirical work that considers only the total change in outcomes and does not attempt to separate the mandated effect from the voluntary effect, will necessarily attribute all of the change in outcome to the mandated lockdown.
Allen discovered over twenty studies that do make this important distinction. Remarkably, he observes that “all of them find that mandated lockdowns have only marginal effects and that voluntary changes in behavior explain large parts of the changes in cases, transmissions, and deaths”. He summarises that “there is almost no consistent evidence that strong levels of lockdown have a beneficial effect.”
This becomes clearer when comparing countries that did lockdown with those that didn’t. According to Allen’s research, “jurisdictions with lockdowns often did not avoid large waves of cases and deaths. In many ways, the virus seemed to progress independently of lockdown policy.”
Pakistan, Finland and Bulgaria, for instance, had quite lenient lockdowns, which resulted in between 60 and 1,000 deaths per million. On the other hand, Peru and the UK had some of the most draconian lockdowns in the world and yet saw deaths per million of 1,500 and 1,900 respectively.
If lockdowns were as beneficial as is widely assumed, we should see much stronger correlations between lockdowns and death reduction than what the data actually shows.
Lockdown Costs Were Underestimated
Allen observes that it is common for cost/benefit studies that measure the cost of lockdowns to only use lost GDP as their metric—for example, the 3.5% drop in GDP experienced in the United States during 2020. Excluding the value of lost non-market goods from this equation, however, means vastly underestimating the cost of lockdowns. We have known for a long time that lockdown policies have resulted in:
A broad range of costs through lost civil liberty, lost social contact, lost educational opportunities, lost medical preventions and procedures, increased domestic violence, increased anxiety and mental suffering, and increased deaths due to despair and inability to receive medical attention.
Many of these costs cannot yet be studied because their effects will only be manifest in time. Nevertheless, Allen draws attention to studies showing that:
- U.S. deaths of despair increased between 10–60% over the course of 2020.
- About 1/3 of the excess deaths in the U.S. over 2020 were not COVID-19 deaths.
- 418–2,114 excess suicides in Canada based on increased unemployment over the pandemic year.
- Approximately 60,000 years of lost life will result in England from increased cancer deaths due to suspended screenings.
- An explicit link between lost educational attainment and life expectancy. One U.S. study estimated school closures during the first wave of the pandemic will result in 13.8 million lost years of life.
- Unemployment shocks in the U.S over the next 15 years unemployment will increase deaths by 800,000, disproportionately affecting women and African-Americans.
As a centrepiece of his research, Allen uses a metric that realistically accounts for these costs to calculate the cost/benefit ratio of lockdowns in terms of life-years saved. He finds that ratio to be 141—that is, the cost of lockdown mandates may be 141 times higher than any benefit they accrue to a population.
In concluding, Allen remarks that “the preconceived success of lockdowns was driven by theoretical models that were based on assumptions that were unrealistic and often false. The lack of any clear and large lockdown effect is because there isn’t one to be found.”
Doubtless, researchers will be dissecting this issue for years to come. If this study is an omen of what is to come, policymakers still utilising lockdowns today should take heed and adjust course post-haste.