Is the cure worse than the disease? Many have dismissed the idea of ending coronavirus lockdowns, claiming that anti-lockdown protesters are heartless, placing the economy above human lives. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) has become notorious for stringent lockdowns, which she defends in the name of “science.” Yet the anxiety the coronavirus has caused — including anxiety specifically from the lockdowns — likely costs more life than the lockdowns are saving. A new study found that this anxiety might cost seven times more in terms of years of life lost than the coronavirus lockdowns could possibly have saved.
“The anxiety from reactions to Covid-19—such as business shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, media exaggerations, and legitimate concerns about the virus—will extinguish at least seven times more years of life than can possibly be saved by the lockdowns,” James Agresti and Andrew Glen wrote in their study on the lockdowns published at Just Facts.
In their study, reviewed by psychiatrist and professor Joseph P. Damore Jr., M.D., Agresti and Glen sorted through multiple studies of the stress and anxiety caused by lockdowns, the health damage of stress and anxiety, and the coronavirus death rates between Scandinavian countries with different lockdown strategies. The researchers took the lowest possible estimate of years of life lost to lockdown stress and compared that with the highest possible estimate of years of life saved due to the lockdowns, and found the lockdowns severely wanting in terms of their health cost.
Just Facts’ decision to focus on years of life lost rather than lives lost immediately may perplex many Americans, but it according with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s principle that “the allocation of health resources must consider not only the number of deaths by cause but also by age.” The CDC explains that the “years of potential life lost” is a useful figure — not because the lives of young people are more important than the lives of the elderly, but because humans can only delay death, not prevent it, and beause there is a difference between a disease that kills a 20-year-old in the prime of her life and one that kills a 90-year-old who would have otherwise died a month later.
Many scientific surveys have discovered that a large proportion of American adults reported suffering psychological harm from the lockdowns and coronavirus fears in general. The American Psychiatric Association found that 36 percent of adults reported that coronavirus anxiety “is having a serious impact on their mental health.” Other studies found that this anxiety has affected the mental health of up to 56 percent of American adults.
The Just Facts study took the lowest nationwide measure of people who have suffered psychological harm from reactions to the coronavirus: 19 percent of adults in a late-March Kaiser Family Foundation survey who reported a “major impact” on their mental health. Since this study had a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points, Just Facts concluded that at the very least 16.8 percent of the 255,200,373 adults in America have suffered major mental harm, a number that works out to 42,873,663 people.
To be fair, the root anxiety does not just derive from the lockdowns. Just Facts reported that anxiety comes from empirically-grounded concerns about the virus, anguish over the death of loved ones, media outlets that overstate the deadliness of the coronavirus, government stay-at-home orders and self-imposed isolation, and the government-mandated lockdowns that have done tremendous economic damage. It is likely impossible to isolate the specific anxiety caused by lockdowns from this broader analysis.
In order to examine the health risks of this anxiety, the researchers pointed to a wide range of studies showing that mental disorders, including anxiety and depression, are correlated with an increased risk of death. A 2015 meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry found that anxiety increases the risk of death by 43 percent, while depression increases it by 71 percent.
A 2011 meta-analysis in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that “unemployment is associated with a substantially increased risk of death among broad segments of the population.” The jobless have a 63 percent higher risk of mortality. Importantly, the death correlation “is significant in both the short and long term” and added unemployment benefits are unlikely to mitigate the deadliness of joblessness.
Just Facts took the lowest estimate for the deadliness of this anxiety. A 2012 meta-analysis from the British Medical Journal found that anxiety and depression increases the risk of death by 20 percent. Taking into account the margin of error, the study concluded that anxiety costs about 1.3 years of life lost per person. The 2015 meta-analysis estimated that mental disorders cost between 1.4 and 32 years of life, with a median of 10.1 years, corroborating the low-end 1.3 years figure.
The threat of coronavirus anxiety and depression has impacted at least 42,873,663 adults and it will rob them of at least 1.3 years of life per person, thus destroying 55.7 million years of life, according to the study.
Estimating the number of American lives saved by lockdowns is even trickier.
Just Facts studied Scandinavia — a region of Europe where countries with extremely similar cultures, economies, and genetics nevertheless had different policy responses to the coronavirus. Sweden, for example, kept most businesses open and only encouraged social distancing. Denmark, Norway, and Finland imposed lockdowns, however. As of April 27, Sweden’s death rate was 32 percent higher than America’s, 3.1 times higher than Denmark’s, 5.8 times higher than Norway’s, and 6.4 times higher than that of Finland.
Just Facts intentionally overestimated the effectiveness of lockdowns, taking the Sweden/Finland death rate ratio of 6.4 and applying it to the U.S. The study then applied this to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics’ pessimistic projection of 114,228 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. through August 4. Just Facts multiplied the 114,228 deaths by 6.4 and then subtracted 114,228 deaths that would theoretically occur regardless of the lockdowns, yielding 616,590 (my calculation finds 616,831).
This assumes many things, including: uniform lockdowns and uniform effectiveness across the U.S. (which is certainly not the case), the idea that Sweden’s death rate will not decline relative to its neighbors despite the fact that herd immunity will likely decrease its relative death rate, and the worst-case projection for the death toll in the U.S. (as of April 27).
Since COVID-19 robs an average of 12 years of life from its victims, the lockdowns could save no more than 7.4 million years of life (both the Just Facts number of 616,590 and the PJ Media calculation of 616,831 work out to roughly 7.4 million when multiplied by 12).
Meanwhile, the anxiety and stress of the pandemic will cost 42.9 million Americans an average of 1.3 years of life, thus destroying 55.7 million years of life.
The coronavirus anxiety and stress cost at least 7.5 times more in terms of years of life than the lockdowns could possibly save, according to Just Facts.
This represents a gross underestimation, however, for a whole host of reasons. According to Just Facts, it is far more likely that the anxiety will destroy more than 90 times the life saved by lockdowns, and even that calculation does not account for various other factors.
Americans must remain committed to stopping the spread of the coronavirus, but this research suggests that the few lives saved by lockdowns must be weighed in the balance with the millions of years of life lost from the lockdowns themselves. While it is impossible to know exactly how much of the 55.7+ million years of life lost come specifically from anxiety over the lockdowns, it is extremely likely that this anxiety outweighs the public health benefit of mandated quarantines.
In other words, “science” does not uniformly support the lockdowns. Indeed, they may represent a public health threat larger than the virus itself.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.
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