Sooner or later, the question has to be asked, did we need to shut down most of the country? Did 30 million and counting Americans have to lose their jobs? The supporters of the lockdown uniformly answer, of course, it saved lives. The chorus they sing is you can’t let people die to rescue the economy. Morally we have to put lives over money. But was that the choice? What if we trashed the economy and it turns out that net-net our actions caused more deaths than it saved? What then? I think we are going to find out sooner than later. You might not like the truth.
The first thing is the lockdown was never primarily about saving lives. It was just about flattening of the Covid-19 hospital admittance curve. Spreading out the infections would prevent hospitals and our healthcare system from being overwhelmed. The idea was if they have the resources to treat those admitted, the medical community might save them. Doctors in hospitals save lives. How many TV shows make this point? The only problem is Covid-19 was different from the start. Rather than killing both young and old, coronavirus kills primarily the elderly and those with underlying conditions. We have known this since the first data came out of China and the Far East. Statistics out of Italy confirmed this. New York shows the same thing. Three charts illustrate this crucial point:
Like a laser, the data pointed out where we had to concentrate our efforts. Additional protection had to be provided for the elderly and compromised. Where are the highest concentrations of the aged? Nursing homes, rehab centers, assisted living, and retirement communities were easy to find. Surely testing, gear, and support had to be rushed to the front lines. This course of action isn’t brain surgery. In any epidemic, these would be at the top of any list of the vulnerable. Plans for this should haw been in place. Others with underlying conditions putting them at high risk needed notification and help. Doctors know who these people are. They write their prescriptions. These groups would be the likely ones to end up in ICU’s in any pandemic. In this case, better than 4 out of five in the ICUs were above 65. If you wanted to keep our medical community from being overwhelmed, you do your best to make sure the elderly don’t get infected in the first place. This chart brings all this home:
How did we and a good part of the world get detoured from a targeted approach? Scenes of Italy’s state-run medical system crushed by sick unattended patients horrified people. Taken by surprise Italy never got ahead of the epidemic. They never had a chance for a targeted approach. At the same time, Neil Ferguson and the Imperial College in the UK announced their model’s findings. If we didn’t take drastic action, Covid-19 would kill 2.2 million in the US and a half million in the UK. If it bleeds, it leads has always ruled the media. Unattended dying patients and the prediction of millions more inspired a media-fueled public panic. Politicians mostly folded. Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially supported a targeted approach in the UK, but promptly did an abrupt about-face. President Trump in the US caved and recommended a full lockdown. Schools and businesses shut down. “Shelter in Place” wasn’t just for those at real risk but for everyone not deemed essential. With millions out of work, governments turned on the printing presses and spent Trillions they didn’t have.
To be sure, people pointed out that Italy is Italy. Many pointed out the Imperial College Model, and some others were highly suspect. I pointed out at the time; this model t predicted the virus would be more deadly in the UK than the current pandemic champ, the Spanish Flu. On its face, this was highly unlikely. Almost immediately, the modelers started backtracking, substantially lowering mortality forecasts. Unfortunately, the dye was already cast. We were already shutting down.
Once committed to the massive lockdowns, politicians had to defend their actions. They and their political supporters and friendly media couldn’t admit they had made what could be a colossal mistake. President Trump showed the way by claiming his actions saved us from losing as many as 2.2 million lives. Clinging to Ferguson’ s now-discredited numbers shows desperation.
When questioned whether a targeted approach might have had superior results, the political classes have combined to defend their actions. They claim the lockdowns are economically superior to any other path because it saved so many lives. Each of those lives has economic value. One would expect those on the left to make such arguments. Any extension of government control is always popular among progressives. As Rahm Emanuel said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”
What is surprising, many not on the left, have made the same rationalizations. Theodore Kupfer and Ramesh Ponnuru’s writing in the “Conservative” National Review makes the argument this way, “When considering marginal costs, it is the cost per death averted that matters.” So how do they arrive at the number saved and the value of each of those lives? Greg Ip, the chief economics commentator for The Wall Street Journal, echos the President by using the Imperial College original number 2.2 million deaths as a baseline to justify the lockdowns. He cites a study assigning a value of $4 million to an assumed 1.7 million lives saved. Shazam, $8 trillion, is recovered. Believe it or not, this was the lowest savings estimate he provided. The upper-end number was $20 trillion. To get there, they used 2 million lives saved at a $10 million per life valuation. The political class can claim great genius for the lockdown because it provided significant economic saving. I know the idea of putting a price on lives is shocking to many, but they brought it up.
As we pointed out, the death figures in the millions were never defensible. Many top-notch people said so at the time. They demanded to know the methodology. They never received it. Putting the baseline at a more realistic figure, say even 20% of the 2.2 million number makes these savings highly questionable. Then there is the question of who is dying. Remember, at least 4 out of five are above 65. Most are no longer in the workforce. They’re on social security and medicare. These are transfers from younger Americans, not earnings. Even the $4 million figure for a life saved looks way out of line. Up to 2/3 of the deaths in the UK would’ve died within a year anyway, according to Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson. With similar results in the US, $4 million a life figure borders on the absurd.
Unfortunately, we know all too well the costs of the lockdown. Millions upon millions out of work Tens of thousands of businesses closed-many forever. We don’t know how far the GDP will fall, but it will total in the trillions. The human cost is hard to calculate, but we know it’s immense. In the Economist’s lengthy report on the harm the closing of just the schools is doing cites Mathias Doepke of Northwestern University estimates:
“that by the end of this summer, the sizeable group of American schoolchildren whose learning loss started when schools closed might have lost up to a year’s attainment. Since every year of education associates with an increase in annual income of roughly 10%, the consequences for those children become clear. “I fear we will see further inequality and less social mobility if we do nothing,” Doepke adds.
Educational damage and so many other calculations of loss are involved. Ip and others use the caveat of making revisions as new data comes available. These will happen well after the harm. When you start with the wrong assumptions harming millions, later changes just don’t mean much. You gave the basis for the mistakes, and that’s what counts.
Lockdown supporters, left to right, ignore the potential lives lost because of this action. It is estimated at least 10,000 suicides were attributable to the Great Recession. The National Bureau of Economic Research calculates a 3.7% increase in Opioid deaths for every 1 percentage point increase in unemployment. Does anybody think this lockdown recession won’t have higher numbers than the Great Recession? CNBC estimates the April unemployment rate in the 10 to 15% range.
It will take some time to tally how many lives lost due to the banning of elective surgeries, missed vaccinations, and delayed diagnosis. Concentration solely on Covid-19 meant other deadly situations went untreated. A brain aneurysm isn’t any less lethal because it requires elective surgery. That just means it, and many other lifesaving surgeries and procedures need scheduling. Of course, they couldn’t be booked.
Maybe the most deadly result of the focus on hospital admittance during the lockdown is that it diverted attention and resources from those most at risk. Nursing homes were at the top of any highly vulnerable list. But their priority for needed supplies and personnel in most cases was well below those of the medical establishment. A targeted approach, by definition, would’ve prioritized the elderly and compromised.
We can contrast the different paths. Take death rates in nursing homes between New York with its low attention to nursing homes and eldercare to Florida’s targeting these for resources and awareness.Before another 1,700 nursing home, related deaths report, New York had one in four COVID-19 deaths were nursing home residents. According to a 4/23 Medicaid report, Florida had reported 248 long term care facility deaths. New York had 3,505 deaths. The states are close in population, with Florida, of course, having a more significant elderly number. Both reported their first COVID -19 infection on the same day. Each is a major International entry point. However, Florida made the elderly a priority, while New York concentrated on its medical establishment. Hard to believe, but Hospitals there transferred infected patients to nursing homes. Maybe this explains why New York has a death rate from Covid-19 is many times Florida’s.
In the days ahead, we’ll have more data to determine whether I and others were right in advocating a targeted approach over a broad lockdown. Some states and countries did less shutting down. Some did it later and backed out of it sooner. Remember, Florida didn’t close down its beaches till after spring vacation. It’s now in the process of returning to normal. Sweden never went to the lockdown extremes. It kept its K!2 schools open. A day of reckoning is coming.
Many will say they closed down the nation based on the data. They listened to the experts. As I have shown, this was never true. The data always indicated a targeted plan would be far better. That’s because the data showed who was in danger of dying and who wasn’t. Following the advice of the epidemiology community was bound to put a part of medical communities’ concerns over the broad needs of the nation.
We must get the facts of which path was right, so we don’t have a depression every time we have an epidemic. It’s heartening that the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper shows a targeted approach to have been the better choice. If its estimates of fewer deaths and half the economic damage hold up, we will be in a better position to act in the future.
Better dissemination of the facts will help us in our recovery. Once the virus escaped China, we were always going to take an big economic hit. Travel, hospitality, and restaurants were going to avoid out of fear of the sickness. The media and the “experts” made this worse by failing to make clear, healthy younger people faced nothing worse than the Flu. Instead, they highlighted.every sick young person As the charts above clearly show, people under 60 without underlying conditions have a minuscule threat of dying. For the economy to come back, the young and healthy have to go out to restaurants and clubs, go on vacation, get on planes and ships. They have to return to real life and work. They have to attend school. Some may get ill, but that’s it. In any case, they will come in contact with the disease sometime. All the lockdown did was spread out the time frame. The good news is, the faster the virus spreads, the sooner we get widespread immunity. Epidemics end in only two ways, with vaccines or broad herd immunity. We can hope for a vaccine in record time, but it’s best to have two chances to one maybe. It may be the only way I’ll get out of house arrest.