“I think we would have done everything differently,” California Governor Gavin Newsom recently told NBC, conceding that strong criticisms of his state’s strict COVID-19 lockdown policies were “legitimate” in hindsight.
Looking in the rear-view mirror, the strict COVID-19 lockdowns, pursued in California and other states, were indeed a disaster. But it was a collective public policy failure, as Newsom observed. Public officials have a responsibility to look back and revisit what they knew—or should have known—before they proposed or implemented the various lockdown policies recommended by federal officials. The often draconian social and economic measures that many state officials imposed, including extended school closures and business shutdowns, resulted in multiple costly consequences that will plague Americans for a long time.
That’s why congressional investigators should take a deeper dive into the rationale behind federal officials’ guidance on COVID-19 lockdowns. States, especially where the toughest restrictions were implemented, should follow suit. Such reviews could help lawmakers avoid ill-advised government overreach when the next pandemic comes along.
COVID Lockdown Data. Peer-reviewed work of an international team of researchers led by Dr. Steve Hanke, professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, Did Lockdowns Work? The Verdict on COVID Restrictions, offers some good insight. A comprehensive literature review, the first study of its kind over a broad range of countries, by Hanke, Dr. Lars Jonung of Sweden’s Lund University, and Dr. Jonas Herby of the Center for Political Studies in Denmark, examined over 19,000 studies but focused on 22 relevant studies with actual mortality data. Their “meta-analysis” examined the specific relationship of mortality to various lockdown restrictions, including mandatory stay-at-home orders, business and school closures, and mask mandates, especially in the workplace.
Hanke and his colleagues examined the specific impact of certain government mandates exclusively on mortality. Among other findings, they concluded that stay-at-home orders reduced COVID mortality between 1.4 and 4.1 percent; business closures by 7.5 percent; school closures between 2.5 percent and 6.2 percent; and mask mandates, particularly in the workplace, by 18.7 percent.
Looking at the aggregate impact of these restrictions across Europe and the United States, Hanke and colleagues found that “...lockdowns in the Spring of 2020 in Europe resulted in 6000 to 23,000 deaths avoided. To put those numbers in to context, during an average flu season, approximately 72,000 are recorded in Europe. Our results made clear that lockdowns had negligible public health effects when measured by mortality.”
COVID Masking Data. In a 2023 study, a team of researchers publishing in the Cochrane Review conducted the most comprehensive literature review (78 studies) on masking to date and concluded: “There is uncertainty about the effects of face masks. The low to moderate certainty of evidence means our confidence in the effect estimate is limited and the true effect may be different from the observed estimate of the effect. The pooled results of RCTs (Random Controlled Trials) did not show a clear reduction in respiratory viral infection with the with the use of medical /surgical masks.” Random controlled trials are the “gold standard” of academic research.
The Cochrane researchers did note that there is a further need for “large, well -designed” studies in multiple setting and populations, as well as levels of “adherence,” to get a better understanding of the effectiveness of masking. Hanke and his colleagues agree with the need for future research in this specific area.
The Swedish Experience. It is particularly noteworthy that officials in Sweden followed far less restrictive policies than European and American officials. They emphasized public information and voluntary compliance with public health recommendations, notably social distancing. Writing in The Frontiers of Public Health (2023), researchers recently reported: “Existing official statistics at both the European and global levels regarding total COVID-19 associated and excess overall mortality rates suggest that Sweden was less affected than most comparable countries that implemented stricter lockdown measures.”
Put into broader context, Hanke and colleagues observe, “Social distancing works. If you keep distance from others, your risk of being infected with a communicable disease is reduced. However, that fact that social distancing works does not imply that compulsory non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), commonly known as ‘lockdowns—policies that restrict internal movement, close schools and businesses, ban international travel and/or other activities—work.”
Censorship of Science. An academic consensus on the impact of lockdowns does not, however, exist. For example, the British Royal Society published a 2023 study that concludes that the lockdowns did indeed contain the viral contagion and reduce mortality. Hanke and colleagues dispute the Royal Society conclusions because of its methodological flaws, specifically lumping together the effects of government mandates and voluntary compliance.
Previously, Hanke and colleagues published the methodological protocol for their research project in July 2021 in the Social Science Research Network(SSRN), a prominent academic platform for research papers. On March 2022, the SSRN published a critique of the paper, but in August 2023 refused to publish a reply by Hanke and his colleagues.
Because academic freedom is essential to the advancement of science, censoring or “deplatforming” academic debate is obviously unacceptable, especially in public health, where the safety of the public is so often dependent on the quality of academic research. Congress has a broad agenda for COVID-19 oversight. It should not overlook the consequences of censorship or suppression of scientific dissent.
There is rarely a binary choice between protecting public health and preserving some semblance of social and economic normalcy. Public health is not only threatened by viral contagion, but also by draconian social and economic lockdowns.
As Dr. Daniel Johnson, former president of the American Medical Association, counseled at the inception of the pandemic: The tough policy job is to protect lives and livelihoods, a prudential balancing that can preserve public health in a holistic fashion.
Too often that has not happened. In his book The Contagion Next Time, Dr. Sandro Galea, Dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, recounts his own research work on the effect of lockdowns on public health: “We found that lockdowns and socially restrictive policies can undermine health in both the short and long terms, creating particular challenges for vulnerable populations. Our work suggested that the harmful consequences of such policies should be considered in decision-making about pandemic response.”
Today, few dispute the negative consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown policies: major economic disruption and massive unemployment; the closure of hundreds of thousands of businesses and the loss of small businesses, including minority businesses; unprecedented increases in federal deficit spending and debt; severe damage to childhood education; aggravated economic and educational inequality; social isolation and increased mental health problems; and, of course, loss of personal freedom.
Personally, Dr. Galea leans Left, but as a research scientist he rightly emphasizes that sound public health policy is not, and should not be, an ideological issue. Progress is dependent upon competent assessment of the evidence, open scientific debate and sound data—all of it. Uncensored.
This piece originally appeared in RealClear Policy