On Wednesday, a coronavirus advisor to Joe Biden suggested that America should enter a stringent lockdown for 4 to 6 weeks in order to restrain the spread of COVID-19. He described the current state of the country as “COVID hell” and suggested that more federal spending would make another round of lockdowns economically feasible.
“We have a big pool of money out there that we could borrow. We could pay for a package right now to cover all of the wages, lost wages for individual workers, for losses to small companies to medium-sized companies, for cities, states, county governments,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of Biden’s 12-member COVID-19 advisory board, told Yahoo Finance.
“If we did that, then we could lock down for 4 to 6 weeks, and if we did that, we could drive the numbers down, like they’ve done in Asia, like they did in New Zealand and Australia.”
He then suggested that this would put America in a strong position before a vaccine becomes available “in the first and second quarter of next year, and bringing back the economy way before that.”
Osterholm wasn’t referring to the supposedly weak and permissive lockdowns from earlier this year. No, he encouraged far more stringent restrictions. He referenced a New York Times op-ed he co-wrote with Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari back in August.
By lockdown, “we mean people must stay at home and leave only for essential reasons: food shopping and visits to doctors and pharmacies while wearing masks and washing hands frequently. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 39 percent of workers in the United States are in essential categories. The problem with the March-to-May lockdown was that it was not uniformly stringent across the country. For example, Minnesota deemed 78 percent of its workers essential. To be effective, the lockdown has to be as comprehensive and strict as possible.”
While Osterholm and Kashkari warned that “there won’t be a robust economic recovery until we get control of this virus,” many economic indicators have shot up recently, even as COVID-19 cases grow. In October, the unemployment rate dropped to 6.9 percent and GDP grew by a whopping 33 percent in the third quarter of the year.
It sounds very noble to support lockdown measures if they will save lives, but according to a study from Just Facts, the anxiety from the media exaggerations of coronavirus lethality and the social-distancing and lockdown measures will cost seven times as many years of life that the lockdowns could potentially save.
Macabre as it may seem, the best medical practices suggest that Americans should weigh health responses in terms of years of life lost or years of life saved. Every human life is precious and every death is a tragedy, but when it comes to weighing different health policies, the loss of the elderly and infirm — who are most likely to contract and die from the coronavirus disease — represent fewer years of life lost than the young and healthy.
Lockdowns breed anxiety, which carries a long-term cost that is difficult to measure. That said, Just Facts compared the years of life lost due to coronavirus anxiety and depression (including anxiety and depression from the lockdowns) and found it a much higher cost than the benefit of years of life saved due to lockdowns.
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.
The effectiveness of lockdowns is extremely difficult to measure, but Just Facts took the highest estimate for potential effectiveness by comparing Sweden’s death rate to the death rate of Finland, a 6.4 ratio back in May. This significantly overstated the effectiveness of lockdowns, since COVID-19 has had second waves in European countries that instituted lockdowns.
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. 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, even assuming the best about the lockdowns.
While the coronavirus pandemic is deadly and serious, other maladies cost far more in terms of years of life. If 240,000 Americans die from the coronavirus, the virus will destroy about 2.9 million years of life from Americans who were alive at the beginning of 2020. This sounds catastrophic, but the annual influenza robs Americans of roughly 35 million years of life, while suicides destroy about 132 million years of life every year, and accidents destroy 409 million years of life annually.
Every death is tragic, but America does not lock down the economy to fight the flu or to prevent accidents.
Furthermore, it is likely the coronavirus lockdowns contributed to the deadly riots this summer, which proved the most destructive (in terms of insurance claims) in U.S. history. Research suggests that mandated isolation can impact brain patterns, increasing an individual’s stress, aggression, and fear. Increasing stress can lead to depression and even suicide, while increased aggression and fear can lead people to act out against perceived injustice by looting and rioting.
The lockdowns also severely crippled America’s economy, even though it appears to be coming back.
It sounds noble to be willing to shut down the economy to save even one life, but in the larger scheme of things, it is important to take into account the negative effects of the lockdowns and balance them with the positives. If the lockdowns would cost about as many years of life as they would potentially save, then America’s policymakers must reconsider taking actions that would cripple the economy and potentially unleash more unrest.
Team Biden has insisted that Joe Biden would handle the coronavirus pandemic better than Donald Trump, but Trump’s administration has arguably done everything an administration can to fight this pandemic. Trump partnered with the private sector to develop testing, to ensure America does not fall short of ventilators, and to begin developing a vaccine. Operation Warp Speed may make history by crafting a vaccine in record time — vaccines often take 3-5 years, while a coronavirus vaccine is likely to be finished around 1 year after research began.
In the meantime, Americans likely need to learn to live with the coronavirus. Every American should take precautions like social distancing, wearing masks when in close proximity with others indoors (and especially where air is recirculated), and maintaining good hygiene with frequent hand-washing and use of sanitizer. Companies would be wise to offer more remote work options.
All that said, another round of lockdowns would probably cost far more than they would be worth. With all due respect to health experts like Osterholm, politicians have to balance fighting the spread of the coronavirus with the other negative results of depression, economic struggle, and urban unrest.
For some reason, I don’t trust Joe Biden to get that analysis right.
One of Biden's new coronavirus task force doctors floating the idea of a 4-6 week lockdown:
“We could pay for a package right now to cover all of the lost wages for individual workers … if we did that, then we could lockdown for 4 to 6 weeks."pic.twitter.com/zNmuQvPpIJ
— Zack Guzman (@zGuz) November 11, 2020
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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