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Questioning the wisdom of COVID lockdowns

It was never just a matter of profits vs. people

A protester against lockdowns holds a sign in San Rafael, Calif., in December 2020. Associated Press/Photo by Eric Risberg (file)

Questioning the wisdom of COVID lockdowns
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A recent report challenging the efficacy of lockdowns in combating COVID-19 mortality rates ought to provoke important reflection about the nature of political decision-making.

The paper, published on a Johns Hopkins University institute website and co-authored by a multinational team of economists, offers a review and meta-analysis of studies focusing on the effectiveness of government restrictions on people’s normal activities: shelter-in-place orders, school and business closures, travel bans, and the like. The authors conclude that such measures had little to no effect on reducing COVID mortality and, when weighed against the negative consequences of the lockdowns themselves, a standard benefit-cost analysis leads inexorably to a simple conclusion: “Lockdowns should be rejected out of hand as a pandemic policy instrument.”

The report has not gone unchallenged. Detractors point out that the paper has yet to be peer-reviewed, object to what they believe is its limited scope, and express concerns about the paper’s interpretations of the underlying studies.

Such debate is simply a part of the scholarly process and should be welcomed. If the contending parties act in good faith—including keeping ideological biases in check—the value of the report will eventually be ascertained.

Meanwhile, the report reveals much about how the political decisions are made, good and bad. Three points stand out. First, as with the debate about the veracity of the Johns Hopkins paper, political decisions ought to proceed from good-faith arguments aimed at securing the public good. Deliberative democracies are grounded in the recognition that citizens may disagree over which goods are more important. Free societies allow for such conflicts to be sorted out in public debate and eventually answered at the ballot box. The alternative is some form of authoritarianism.

Enter point two: For much of the past two years, a one-sided set of authorities largely dismissive of all counterarguments and dissent have dominated—at both popular and official levels—many of our responses to the pandemic. The Johns Hopkins paper offers a prime example. When the pandemic first began, many cautioned against the continuation of lockdowns. While aware of concerns that loosening lockdowns might accelerate infections and death, we also feared not loosening them would lead to economic calamity and deep social and psychological costs. Importantly, these latter concerns are not the expertise of epidemiologists.

The lockdowns caused real damage and caused real harms.

Dr. Anthony Fauci admitted as much in Senate testimony during the spring of 2020 when he asserted, “I’m a scientist, a physician, and a public health official. I give advice, according to the best scientific evidence. I don’t give advice about economic things.” Link this statement with another Fauci recently made in response to the political divide over COVID: “What we’re seeing is a public health issue which requires synergy among all elements of our government, where we realize that the common enemy is the virus.” The problem is that the virus never was our only enemy, nor was public health the only priority under threat.

This brings us to the final point: Those who argued against the lockdowns in deference to economic concerns were often vilified as putting “profits over people” or valuing “business over lives.” That was not a fair description. Apprehension about the dangers of lockdowns was not misplaced. The Johns Hopkins paper reminds us that lockdowns “contributed to reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, causing political unrest, contributing to domestic violence, and undermining liberal democracy.” In other words, the lockdowns caused real damage and caused real harms.

Serious people understand that behind data points like hundreds of thousands of failed businesses are the shattered lives of real people—real families dependent on the success of private enterprise to pay bills and buy bread. We are only now coming to terms with the unconscionable toll on children, recently acknowledged by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and by the staggering surge in teenage suicide attempts.

Hard political choices are rarely between simply the excellent and the deplorable. Instead, politics is almost always a battle of rival priorities. Legitimate demands compete for resources and attention. Choices must be made between conflicting goods. Choices, we must hope, are made with the best knowledge available at the time. In the midst of it all, decisions often must be made not with facts but with compelling and competing arguments.

The task is rendered harder still when we guide ourselves with a thin grasp of what it means to flourish as human beings. If it turns out that the lockdowns accomplished little, we will have only ourselves to blame for the harms that followed. We let ourselves become preoccupied with trying to stop a disease from killing us. We followed bad advice. We abandoned a thick conception of the good life. We forgot that mere survival is insufficient for life. Many lessons remain to be learned.

Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also a non-resident research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in the College of Leadership & Ethics. He is the author of The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury.


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