In North Carolina and across the country, Americans have coalesced into two angry factions based on how they feel about statewide lockdown orders like the one that Gov. Roy Cooper imposed on North Carolinians last month. Those who support the orders and want them extended claim they are saving lives. Those who oppose the orders and want them lifted claim they are destroying the economy. But what if both sides are wrong? What if, even in the absence of statewide lockdown orders, voluntary social distancing would have had more or less the same effects on both the spread of COVID-19 and on the economy? In two recent articles published in the Journal of the Witherspoon Institute, demographer Lyman Stone presents evidence suggesting that’s exactly what would have happened.
In “Lockdowns don’t work,” Stone summarizes his statistical analysis of COVID-19 deaths in five European countries, three that did impose lockdowns — Spain, France, and Italy — and two that did not — Sweden and the Netherlands. Regarding the former, his analysis shows that mortality began to decline too soon to have been the result of the lockdown orders. Regarding the latter, he notes that, “Sweden is performing much better than the typical locked-down country,” that “the Netherlands is having similar performance,” and that “[t]his is all consistent with the idea that lockdowns are not a decisive factor in determining the scale of mortality a society experiences during an outbreak of COVID-19.”
Stone also analyzes data from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea, “the countries that have had the most successful control efforts.” Regarding these countries, he observes:
None of these countries ever went into lockdown. In Hong Kong, where I live, we received a very large number of imported cases in recent weeks, but they did not lead to a large outbreak. We still have had just four deaths and only about a thousand cases, in a region of 7.5 million people. … Notably, Hong Kong has not had a lockdown, but it does have a program of centralized quarantine: those who test positive for COVID, as well as anyone they have had contact with, are quarantined in a designated site like a hotel or a government facility.
Stone doesn’t provide detailed data for Taiwan, which is a shame because Taiwan’s record on COVID-19 is almost certainly the best in the world: 24 million people; lots of interaction with China; 429 confirmed cases; six deaths; and no lockdown.
Summarizing the results of his analysis Stone says:
Many policies provide public-health benefits in pandemics, such as making face masks mandatory, canceling school, and banning large assemblies and long-distance travel. But ordering people to cower in their homes, harassing people for having playdates in the park, and ordering small businesses to close regardless of their hygienic procedures has no demonstrated effectiveness.
While that conclusion may strike many people as absurdly counter-intuitive, it actually makes sense. We know from our own experience in North Carolina that a lot of people were already staying at home and practicing social distancing before the governor’s lockdown order went into effect. Conversely, we also know a lot of people have continued to leave their homes for various purposes, not just in defiance of the lockdown order, but also because the orders provide for lots of exceptions. As a result, it’s far from clear the lockdown order deserves credit for “bending the curve” or blame for tanking the economy. And, if Stone’s analysis is correct, it appears likely that, even if there hadn’t been any lockdown orders, voluntary social distancing would have had had more or less the same epidemiological and economic effects.
But even if it’s true he lockdown orders have had, at most, only a marginal effect on both the disease and the economy, that doesn’t mean the orders have been innocuous. On the contrary, while the effects of the orders on the disease and the economy may have been minimal, their effects on social relations have been disastrous.
The lockdowns have exacerbated the already high level of animosity between the red and blue tribes, which will make it hard for politicians to make sensible decisions about COVID-19 policy. Democrats will be dogmatic in their support for lockdowns and other extreme measures, and Republicans will be equally dogmatic in their opposition to any and all restrictions on normal life, even ones, like mandatory quarantine for infected individuals, that have a proven track-record and have long been regarded as an acceptable and constitutional infringement on rights normally be considered sacrosanct.
Even worse, the lockdowns have exacerbated the ongoing class war, which will make it hard for ordinary people to make sensible decisions about their private lives. The people who support the lockdown orders are mostly middle-class knowledge workers and government employees getting paid to stay at home. The people who oppose the orders are mostly service workers, small business owners, and the self-employed who have lost their livelihoods. The blatant distain that former have shown for the latter in recent weeks will make many people want to behave recklessly, if only out of spite.
As we deal with this new and potentially dangerous epidemic disease, Americans ought to be pulling together. If federal, state, and local governments hadn’t interfered, I am sure that’s exactly what we would be doing. And, if federal, state, and local governments had allowed it to happen, I am sure we’d be seeing a lot more of what we really need, i.e., innovation and creative workarounds with regard to things like protective devices and testing and tracing technology.
We all want the same thing, after all. We want to contain the spread of COVID-19 with as little social and economic disruption as possible. Given half a chance, Americans can undoubtedly achieve that goal. Unfortunately, before we can get on with it we’ll have to clear up the confusion and heal the wounds caused by the statewide lockdowns.
Jon Guze is director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation.