New Study Reveals Covid Lockdowns Will Cost More Lives Than They Save

A recent paper that examined over 100 COVID-19 studies has revealed that government-mandated lockdowns fail any reasonable cost/benefit analysis by a significant ratio.

Published in the International Journal of the Economics of Business, the study found that lockdowns have only marginally reduced COVID-19 deaths, but come with enormous long-term costs that far outweigh their benefits.

Authored by Canadian economics professor and prolific academic Douglas W. Allen, the study concluded that “lockdowns are not just an inefficient policy, they must rank as one of the greatest peacetime policy disasters of all time”.

Allen’s paper, entitled COVID-19 Lockdown Cost/Benefits: A Critical Assessment of the Literature, begins with a bombshell revelation: no government anywhere has provided any formal cost/benefit analysis of their lockdown policies to the public.

Instead, they relied on early modelling that vastly overestimated COVID deaths, significantly overstated the benefits of lockdowns, and ignored most of the potential costs that would result from these policies.

COVID Deaths Were Overestimated

As governments have shifted their aims from ‘flattening the curve’ to any number of other objectives, Allen explains that “the average citizen and business person has had to trust that such a blunt and destructive policy tool was justified in the face of a novel viral pandemic.”

Non-essential businesses, education, recreation, and spiritual facilities have been forced to close, shelter-in-place policies have been enforced, and citizens have endured major restrictions on private social gatherings. Writes Allen, these policies have relied on the intuition that:

a physical, government mandated, intervention that isolates people and slows down the transmission of the virus can reduce the spike of infections, allow hospitals to cope given their capacity constraints, postpone deaths, and possibly reduce deaths until a vaccine can be created.

Allen explains that a model widely relied upon by governments early in the pandemic was that by Neil Ferguson et al. (2020). It predicted some 490,000 UK deaths in the first wave; 2.2 million deaths in the United States, and 267,000 in Canada—numbers they believed could be reduced by around 50 per cent with lockdowns.

In fact, the first wave saw death tallies of 41,000, 153,000, and 9,000 respectively in those countries. In other words, Ferguson’s dire predictions meant that the benefits of lockdowns were spectacularly overstated by multiples of between 6 and 15.

The Ferguson model warned that “the social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound” but still concluded that “epidemic suppression [i.e. lockdown] is the only viable strategy at the current time”.

And the rest is history.

Lockdown Benefits Were Overestimated

Most lockdown modelling assumes that, without a lockdown order in place, people will not modify their behaviour. But this is not how people actually behave.

The study noted that “if new infections and daily deaths from the disease grow too high, people take costly efforts to avoid interaction and thus slow disease spread.” As a result of this misunderstanding, much research has wrongly attributed the benefits of good decision-making by individuals to lockdown mandates. Allen offers a corrective:

Any empirical work that considers only the total change in outcomes and does not attempt to separate the mandated effect from the voluntary effect, will necessarily attribute all of the change in outcome to the mandated lockdown.

Allen discovered over twenty studies that do make this important distinction. Remarkably, he observes that “all of them find that mandated lockdowns have only marginal effects and that voluntary changes in behavior explain large parts of the changes in cases, transmissions, and deaths”. He summarises that “there is almost no consistent evidence that strong levels of lockdown have a beneficial effect.”

This becomes clearer when comparing countries that did lockdown with those that didn’t. According to Allen’s research, “jurisdictions with lockdowns often did not avoid large waves of cases and deaths. In many ways, the virus seemed to progress independently of lockdown policy.”

Pakistan, Finland and Bulgaria, for instance, had quite lenient lockdowns, which resulted in between 60 and 1,000 deaths per million. On the other hand, Peru and the UK had some of the most draconian lockdowns in the world and yet saw deaths per million of 1,500 and 1,900 respectively.

If lockdowns were as beneficial as is widely assumed, we should see much stronger correlations between lockdowns and death reduction than what the data actually shows.

Lockdown Costs Were Underestimated

Allen observes that it is common for cost/benefit studies that measure the cost of lockdowns to only use lost GDP as their metric—for example, the 3.5% drop in GDP experienced in the United States during 2020. Excluding the value of lost non-market goods from this equation, however, means vastly underestimating the cost of lockdowns. We have known for a long time that lockdown policies have resulted in:

A broad range of costs through lost civil liberty, lost social contact, lost educational opportunities, lost medical preventions and procedures, increased domestic violence, increased anxiety and mental suffering, and increased deaths due to despair and inability to receive medical attention.

Many of these costs cannot yet be studied because their effects will only be manifest in time. Nevertheless, Allen draws attention to studies showing that:

  • U.S. deaths of despair increased between 10–60% over the course of 2020.
  • About 1/3 of the excess deaths in the U.S. over 2020 were not COVID-19 deaths.
  • 418–2,114 excess suicides in Canada based on increased unemployment over the pandemic year.
  • Approximately 60,000 years of lost life will result in England from increased cancer deaths due to suspended screenings.
  • An explicit link between lost educational attainment and life expectancy. One U.S. study estimated school closures during the first wave of the pandemic will result in 13.8 million lost years of life.
  • Unemployment shocks in the U.S over the next 15 years will increase deaths by 800,000, disproportionately affecting women and African-Americans.

As a centrepiece of his research, Allen uses a metric that realistically accounts for these costs to calculate the cost/benefit ratio of lockdowns in terms of life-years saved. He finds that ratio to be 141—that is, the cost of lockdown mandates may be 141 times higher than any benefit they accrue to a population.

In concluding, Allen remarks that “the preconceived success of lockdowns was driven by theoretical models that were based on assumptions that were unrealistic and often false. The lack of any clear and large lockdown effect is because there isn’t one to be found.”

Doubtless, researchers will be dissecting this issue for years to come. If this study is an omen of what is to come, policymakers still utilising lockdowns today should take heed and adjust course post-haste.

This article was first published at the Daily Declaration.

12 thoughts on “New Study Reveals Covid Lockdowns Will Cost More Lives Than They Save

  1. Pathetic study based on a very limited range and focussed on cost. Covid is a heath issue not an economic issue and most failures of implementation of containment have been based on this focus. If you are part of a society which you want to take advantage of : education, health provision, aged care etc etc you have responsibliity to contribute – protect others not just yourself. Over 90% of continuing cases are due to non vaccinated, non isolating and selfish behaviours. It is not just all about you ( Freedoms — go to Syria, Aghanistan and shout my freedoms !!!!!!!!), time to grow up people.

  2. The study was based on over 100 research papers. To claim that it is “pathetic” is mere hand-waving. In order to establish that it is “pathetic” you must address its premises, data and conclusions. Have you read the study and understood it?

    Covid is a health issue but how governments respond to it is an everything issue – it affects health, economics, society, morality, democracy and much more besides. Your claim that the ongoing spread of the virus is due to selfish and unvaxxed people failing to isolate is an assertion for which you have provided no evidence. I’m open to reading any studies that support this claim.

  3. Yes I did read the ‘study’ along with 10000 other research papers who contest the findings. The ongoing spread — the number of hospitalised victims now treated in a system they could have avoided is daily reported. Non vaxxers around 90% – consistently avoidable – but worst — consistently spreading. I have friends who are dealing with this not as an intellectual issue but in Wards – Go and see what being on a ventilator looks like — believe me you won’t be worrying about a simple jab !! i have friends who have lost love ones and some who have ‘recovered ‘ from overseas infections — believe me they are not worrying about some bullshit freedom because they will never have ti again.

    1. 10,000 research papers is impressive! I don’t know where you found all the time. There’s no denying that Covid-19 is a terrible disease that no one wants, and that our medical workers deserve praise for their tireless efforts over the last 18 months. But nowhere in this article (or any other) have I discouraged people from being vaccinated. This article doesn’t even mention vaccination, so I’m not sure why you’ve raised it. This article is also not about freedoms (which are precious and not to be scorned). Both my article and the study it reports on only make passing references to liberty. The argument, which you have missed, is this: more people will ultimately die and far graver total costs will be incurred as a result of lockdown mandates than if people had been left to assess their own risks and act accordingly.

  4. Just wanted to leave this quote from the study here:

    ‘Lockdown’ does not refer to cases of ‘isolation,’ where a country was able to engage in an early and sufficient border closure that prevented trans-border transmission, followed by a mandated lockdown that eliminated the virus in the domestic population, which was then followed by perpetual isolation until the population is fully vaccinated. This strategy was adopted by a number of island countries like New Zealand.1

    1. Correct. He even includes mask mandates in his definition of lockdown but differentiates this from international border closures. Given that Australia’s NSW and VIC lockdowns saved even less lives because community transmission was already low due to international border closures, these lockdowns would arguably have performed even worse under his cost/benefit analysis.

      1. That’s extrapolating beyond the data and report presented. This way be dragons.

        There is specific reasons why the author chose to exclude the above from their definition of lockdown. I’d need to see some justification about why the author’s stated intent can be changed like this without affecting the conclusions.

        If you are going to extrapolate beyond what the author is saying their research is relevant to, you need to realise that you are moving beyond the bounds of science and research and into hypothesis and bias…

      2. Oh… realised I should specifically highlight this sentence for consideration:

        “Given that Australia’s NSW and VIC lockdowns saved even less lives because community transmission was already low due to international border closures”

        This statement is only true in that the health interventions (of which lockdown was one) managed to stamp out the virus. Transmission was active at the time the lockdowns hit, and the numbers that the transmission peaked to despite the restrictions will either highlight how critical the restrictions were (if you believe they were effective) or how ineffective they were (if you believe the virus died out for reason other than lockdowns).

        This is why it’s tricky to re-context research like this. Lockdowns as part of an isolation strategy (which means elimination of COVID within the protected walls of the isolated country) carries different goals, and different cost/benefit attributes.

        The author doesn’t explain why they’ve chosen to eliminate a host of places that literally went into lockdown. A reader must assume this is important to the research being presented however, as the author has specifically called it out as a significant exclusion.

      3. I don’t assume the author excluded e.g. NZ and Aus in order to massage his preferred outcome. At the time he published his study, NZ had almost no measurable spread (due to shut borders) and Australia’s outbreaks were yet to peak. Yes, spread was established within Australia when we went into lockdown but because of our border closures that spread was able to be traced and responded to in a way that wasn’t possible in the rest of the world where lockdowns were used as a blunt instrument of largely-untracked virus suppression.

        I can see your point – that Australia/NZ deserve their own case study because the parameters were different. Fair enough. But keep in mind one of Allen’s central contentions which would also hold true in our nation: you don’t need government-mandated closures of mass sectors of the economy for people to make the voluntary decision to isolate, shop and work from home, interact less, etc. Any study that aims at measuring the benefit of mandated lockdowns must seek to differentiate between the effect of government mandates and the effect of human choice.

      4. Just in case you hadn’t looked at this already, here’s a reasonable looking evaluation of the Sweden interventions for the described time period:

        The takeaway is that this is not really the laissez-faire structure it’s billed as here.

        > ” you don’t need government-mandated closures of mass sectors of the economy for people to make the voluntary decision to isolate, shop and work from home, interact less, etc. Any study that aims at measuring the benefit of mandated lockdowns must seek to differentiate between the effect of government mandates and the effect of human choice.”

        Yep! We agree on this point

        And interesting article regardless… thanks for sharing both it, and your own analysis of this.

  5. Yes I clarified that this is my interpretation with the word “arguably”. In the article, I tried to briefly but faithfully present Allen’s study. Opinions I express in the comments section are not a continuation of that!

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