Since early 2020, governments around the world have implemented far-reaching lockdowns based on the argument, that in the absence of an effective vaccine, it is the only measure that can prevent a total collapse of the health care system and an unacceptably high number of deaths. In view of shocking reports from Wuhan and Northern Italy, most citizens considered this reasonable and were willing to accept severe infringements of their personal and economic freedom.
Have lockdowns, or non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) as they are called in many scientific papers, worked?
Sientific research and common-sense analysis don’t support lockdowns
A team of economists from the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley claims, that anti-contagion policies have “significantly and substantially” slowed growth in infections. By using January – April 2020 data for China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, France and the USA, they “estimate that across these 6 countries, interventions prevented or delayed on the order of 61 million confirmed cases, corresponding to averting approximately 495 million total infections.” As one year later the global infection count is around 145 million, such a high estimate appears doubtful.
The Imperial College London’s “Covid-19 Response Team” under the leadership of Prof. Neil Ferguson issued a paper contending that non-pharmaceutical interventions had averted 3.1 million deaths in 11 European countries by 4 May 2020. It arrived at this number by “comparing the deaths predicted under the model with no interventions to the deaths predicted in our intervention model”. To believe in the 3.1 million averted deaths requires a lot of trust in the validity of their no-intervention model. Based on Prof. Ferguson’s track-record, questionable assumptions and alleged coding issues such trust might be misplaced. For those who still believe it please consider, that almost one year later the global death count is 3 million people.
Other researchers question, that lockdowns have any meaningful effect. One study exploring two models developed by the Imperial College concludes: “Inferences on effects of NPIs are non-robust and highly sensitive to model specification. Claimed benefits of lockdown appear grossly exaggerated”.
Lockdown does not equal lockdown, as two countries under contagion can have very different policies regarding international travel, closure of education facilities, acceptable level of interpersonal relations, sports activities, stay at home requirements and business restrictions. Some studies have therefore tried to evaluate the impact of specific lockdown measures.
One research team considers closing schools and universities highly effective, banning gatherings effective, and closing businesses moderately effective. According to them, stay-at-home orders only have a small additional effect.
With regard to educational institutions, the findings are is in stark contrast to several studies with a sole focus on school closures. One paper comparing Sweden (no school closure, no masking) with Norway (full school closure), found that “closure or not of schools had no measurable direct impact on the number of laboratory confirmed cases in school-aged children” and that there was “no increased risk for teachers”. Others come to similar conclusions using data from Germany / Baden-Württemberg, Norway / Oslo and Viken and North Carolina.
As far as business closures are concerned, another study concludes, that “While small benefits cannot be excluded, mandatory stay-at-home and business closure orders do not seem to have had substantial benefits on case growth …. Similar reductions in case growth may be achievable with behavior changes from less restrictive interventions.”
The low impact of stay-at-home orders is also confirmed in a study from Brazil, that analyzed data from Google mobility. According to their paper, they were “not able to explain if COVID-19 mortality is reduced by staying at home in ~ 98% of the comparisons”.
Another research team concludes: “Rapid border closures, full lockdowns, and wide-spread testing were not associated with COVID-19 mortality per million people”.
The above is just a small selection of existing lockdown studies, but it shows the large range of often contradictory conclusions. The results of the early studies are questionable, as data quality was poor and knowledge about the virus was only evolving. But more recent studies must also be treated with caution, as model design and data selection have a huge impact on the outcome. Whether you are pro or anti lockdown, you will always find suitable data and a supportive model to prove your point.
In summary, there is no broad consensus within the scientific community that lockdowns achieve the desired effect. Especially tough measures, such as full school and business closures as well as stay-at-home orders, are not supported by many studies.
The use of statistical models is currently the preferred scientific way of assessing government NPIs. However, there is also a more common-sense approach to evaluate lockdowns. This involves asking a few questions, that should all be answered with an unanimous ‘Yes’, to prove that lockdowns work:
- Did lockdowns stop the spread of the disease? No, otherwise infections and mortality would not have soared in many countries after lockdowns were imposed
- Did lockdowns protect those most at risk (e.g. the elderly and those with underlying conditions)? No, they still continued to die in large numbers during all of 2020
- Is the number of Covid deaths much higher in countries, that did not implement draconian lockdowns? No, some countries with tough NPIs exhibit the highest mortality numbers.
Let’s have a closer look at the third question. At the time of writing, Sweden, whose government has been condemned by international organizations and other countries for implementing only light containment measures, has suffered 1,362 Covid deaths per 1 million population according to Worldometers. The respective numbers for many European countries with tough lockdowns are considerably higher, e.g.: 2,045 (Belgium). 1,948 (Italy), 1,867 (UK), 1,651 (Spain), and 1,554 (France). Especially a direct comparison between Sweden and the UK, a country with far-reaching containment measures, shows that daily deaths in the UK were consistently higher during the previous two waves.
Admittedly there are a lot of European countries with much lower mortality than Sweden. Its neighbors Finland (161) and Norway (130) have certainly performed much better. However, Norway shut its borders in March 2020 and Finland, which is not really a global tourist hotspot, had a very restrictive immigration policy. At the same time Sweden kept its doors open to citizens of European countries.
In the USA, pro-lockdown California reported 1,547 deaths per million, whereas the number in mostly lockdown-free Florida was 1,608. The difference can better be explained by Florida’s larger share of the elderly, than by the absence of a lockdown. While Florida had more deaths in wave one, California did much worse in the second wave. An analysis of the results of the different policy approaches in the two states can be found here and here. Other lockdown states have performed even worse than California, such as New Jersey (2,845), New York (2,674) and Massachusetts (2,539).
The above is of course no prove, that lockdowns don’t work, as many other factors such as demographics, quality of healthcare, spread of comorbidities, etc. contribute to Covid mortality. However, the data corroborates the findings of the many scientific studies, that question the benefits of non-pharmaceutical interventions. In addition, we don’t have to prove that lockdowns are ineffective. If governments want to shut down businesses and keep us at home, the burden of proof, that strict confinement is the only option to avert disaster, is with them.
The life-saving effect of NPIs is heavily disputed in the scientific community. However, it is general acknowledged, that lockdowns cause a lot of collateral damage. Necessary treatments for non-Covid related diseases are delayed, preventive medical check-ups suspended and established childhood vaccination programs disrupted. This will likely result in a large number of unnecessary hospitalizations and early deaths, not as a result of Covid, but as a direct consequence of government policies.
Lockdowns have caused a widespread deterioration of mental health, which has resulted in an increase in depression, alcoholism, domestic violence and suicides. It must be assumed that some older people did not die of Covid but of isolation.
Many children were deprived of their right to education, when their schools closed. The respective orders were issued, even though many studies concluded, that children are unlikely to die from Covid and have a low risk of transmitting the virus to other kids or their teachers.
Negative effects of lockdowns are not equally shared among society. Public officials and many office workers are given the convenient choice of working from home without any reduction in salary. Factory workers and those in the service sector are not so lucky. Many have lost part of their income or were laid off. Large-scale human misery and even starvation in countries without an established welfare system has been the direct consequence. Those who are allowed to continue working, carry a much higher risk of contracting Covid compared to those, who sit in front of their laptops in the comfort of their home.
Longer confinement increases the risk of severe Covid. It causes unhealthy weight gain, weakens the immune system, and reduces healthy exposure to sunlight. Instead of making our bodies more resistant, it increases the risk of falling sick severely with Covid or another disease.
Lockdowns have caused havoc to the global economy. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in 2020 GDP has contracted by -3.3% worldwide (-3.5% in the USA and -6.6% in the Euro area). Politicians are claiming, that the reduction in economic activity was caused by ‘the virus’. Though Covid is certainly responsible for some decline, it is reasonable to assume, that most of the economic damage is the direct result of ill-advised lockdown decisions, for which politicians have to bear the blame.
The website Collateral Global provides a collection of vetted, peer-reviewed studies covering the impact of lockdown measures on health, education, the economy, and inequality. They show that the negative impact is not minor but massive. The full extent of the damage caused by lockdowns will only be seen in the years to come.
Many scientists and doctors have spoken out against lockdowns. In the Great Barrington Declaration renowned infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists Prof. Bhattacharya (Stanford), Prof. Gupta (Oxford), and Prof. Kulldorf (Harvard) ask for an end of lockdowns and propose a strategy of focused protection. The document was co-signed by 44 public health scientists and medical practitioners and has meanwhile been signed by another 14,000 scientists and 42,500 medical practitioners. It states:
“…. Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice …..
We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza…..
The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection….”
Have you ever heard of the Great Barrington Declaration or of similar documents by scientists and medical practitioners around the world? Most people have not, as voices challenging the official narrative are suppressed and vilified.
Politicians, bureaucrats and self-appointed health-care specialists claim, that the implementation of tough lockdowns is based on science. Citizens should call on them to prove this and show, that the enormous negative side effects on people’s health and the economy, have been fully incorporated into the government’s ‘lockdown model’.
A feared collapse of the healthcare system is no convincing argument for lockdowns
Despite growing evidence against lockdowns, their proponents claim that they are indispensable to ‘flatten the curve’. Without them our health care systems will collapse and millions will have to die. To underline their argument, they refer to what happened in Wuhan, Lombardy, and New York during the first wave in 2020.
We consider this argument not very convincing for three reasons. First, as shown above, it is doubtful that the implemented lockdowns have really flattened the curve. Second, governments have had more than one year to prepare for a worst case. They should have created emergency hospital reserves, devised special protection measures for the vulnerable, and pushed for the use of effective and already available medicine for the early treatment of patients to avoid hospitalization. If they have done their job, a repeat of the calamities in Wuhan, Lombardy and New York shouldn’t occur, at least in the developed world. Third, if a breakdown of the public health system is such a threat, why are we told so little about the real situation in hospitals. To be sure, there are plenty of fear-mongering articles in the mass media, but we are familiar with them from previous flu seasons.
Whereas we are constantly bombarded with new Covid infection and deaths numbers, quality information on hospitalization is conspicuous by absence. At least the following information should be readily available:
I) How many people need to be hospitalized because of Covid as the underlying cause (contrary to suffering from another disease but also having a positive PCR test)?
II) What is the average duration of a hospital stay for a Covid patient?
III) What is the hospital utilization in general and particularly for ICUs?
Worldometers does not contain any such content. Our World in Data provides information on the number of Covid patients in hospital and in ICU, but it does not clarify, whether they are there because of Covid or just with Covid (e.g. an asymptomatic Covid ‘case’, that is hospitalized for cancer treatment or due to a traffic accident). Information on II and III above is missing completely.
Official country websites don’t perform much better. The U.S. CDC makes you search long as it hides the hospitalization data here. It reports hospitalization rates by age, sex and race/ethnicity, but if you look for answers to I, II, and III above you won’t find it. Perhaps you will come across the page Current Hospital Capacity Estimates. Unfortunately, the information was last updated on July 14, 2020. It appears that this topic is not so important.
The UK government includes “patients admitted” in its daily dashboard, but no information on hospital occupancy. The NHS publishes data regarding “Covid-19 Hospital Activity”. However, this information is very detailed, without any overview and without any reference to the total utilization. For this you have to go to another pape, where data is only up to Q3 2020 and also does not cover ICU utilization. Nevertheless, we learn that utilization in the first three quarters of 2020 was lower than in previous years. This corresponds with a BBC article that shows occupancy rates in the last four weeks of 2020, when Covid cases were rising rapidly, to be lower than in the previous year.
The German Robert Koch Institute (RKI), which provides daily reports on behalf of the Ministry of Health, does not include hospitalization in its dashboard at the top of the report, but contains ICU occupancy rate and the number of Covid patients currently in ICU at the end. However, most readers will have given up by then and the information provided also does not answer questions I, II and partially III above.
A closer look at the German Intensivregister, referred to in the above mentioned RKI report, reveals, that the number of occupied ICU beds has been quite stable at about 20,000 since May of last year. Considering that 25 German hospitals were closed in 2020, the situation can’t have been all that bad.
One reason for the lower-than-average hospital utilization in the UK, Germany, and most like many other countries is, that assumed non-essential medical checks and surgery were postponed, to make room for the expected flood of Covid patients, that in many cases never materialized. Some patients with non-Covid related diseases have already passed away because of this. More patients are likely to die in the near future as a direct result of non-detection or delayed treatment of a fatal disease. This provides a great example of how a sole focus on one issue can have deadly consequences in other areas.
Scientific evidence supporting mask wearing is weak
Related to lockdowns is the topic of mask wearing. Whether it makes sense to wear a mask is one of the most controversially discussed topics. But it’s not just about whether, but also what kind of mask to wear, a cloth or ‘community’ mask, a medical mask, or even a respirator/FFP2 such as a N95 or KN95. Some politicians have also proposed double-masking, and we are waiting for some to suggest triple- and quadruple-masking.
A report of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) regarding face masks in the community based on a systematic literature search found, that there is “low to moderate” certainty of evidence that medical face masks have a “small to moderate” effect. Regarding non-medical face masks there was “very low” certainty of evidence for a “small to moderate” effect.
This really doesn’t sound like a strong justification for mask wearing. Nevertheless, the ECDC states that “wearing a medical or non-medical face mask is recommended in confined public spaces (such as stores, supermarkets and public transport). The use of face masks can be considered in crowded outdoor settings”.
Even if masks can in theory reduce the infection risk, it does not come as a surprise that in actual life, they fall short of achieving the desired effect. People use masks that are too big or too small for them, wear them incorrectly (e.g. below their nose), or take them off after a while, because they can’t breathe anymore. You can complain about it, but this is human. To stop it requires 100% surveillance and abolition of most human rights. In view of an overall Covid Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) of 0.15%, do we really need a totalitarian state to implement full adherence to stringent lockdown and masking requirements? We don’t think so. We are deeply concerned about what will happen, when the world faces a truly devastating virus, that is spreading faster and much more deadly than Covid-19.
As there is no rigorous testing of masks sold to the general public, there is a high risk that some of them may contain hazardous material. For instance, Health Canada has warned, that potentially toxic masks were distributed in schools and daycare centers in Quebec.
Even if the masks are of good quality, there are plenty of other health risks associated with mask wearing as summarized here. In addition, there is the issue of safe and environmentally friendly disposal of masks. In the future it will be interesting to analyze the long-term adverse effects of the current masking requirements.
The WHO has recommended, that children aged up to five years should not wear masks and for those between 6 and 11 years of age, “a risk-based approach should be applied”. Irrespectively, more and more jurisdictions require children to wear masks. A good overview of the risks of mask wearing for children can be found here.
It appears acceptable to use a mask for shorter periods, for instance when visiting an elderly person or when having a meeting in a crowded room with poor ventilation. But to force people to wear one all day long, only prompts them to cheat. When outside, there should in general be no requirement to wear a mask, as the risk of getting infected with Covid by passing strangers is close to zero. Nevertheless, countries demand it and prosecute people who don’t adhere.
To wear a community or medical mask for many hours is already bad enough. Unfortunately, there is a growing trend especially in Europe to ask people to wear FFP2 masks, which were previously reserved for medical professionals and people working with hazardous substances. As FFP2 masks make breathing difficult, they should only be worn for short periods. Irrespectively, some airlines require their use on long intercontinental flights. Fortunately, you don’t have to wear your FFP2 mask while eating delicious airline food, which of course makes perfect sense.
The worst insight of the past year has been, how easily people succumb to fear-mongering and are keen to outdo legal requirements that are inane. Wearing a mask when walking along an isolated beach or when driving alone in a car makes no sense, but can be seen often.
Zero Covid and beyond
We can understand that governments around the globe implemented lockdowns in early 2020, when the virus was novel and pictures from Wuhan and Lombardy shocked the world. However, by now a lot more is known and authorities should have learned from previous mistakes. It should be accepted that draconian lockdowns and stringent mask regulations are not based on science or common sense.
We don’t assert that selective containment measures and occasional mask wearing can’t provide benefits. But a much more measured approach, based on scientific findings and taking into account all side effects (not just Covid infections and deaths) is required.
Unfortunately, some governments are moving in the opposite direction, by continuing ineffective and harmful lockdowns. Some even call for tougher measures to achieve ‘zero Covid’. We have not achieved zero flu, zero tuberculosis, etc., so why do they think that they can achieve zero Covid within a reasonable time frame?
At the beginning we were told, that short lockdowns are necessary to ‘flatten the curve’. More than one year later we still hear the same argument. If authorities get their way with ‘zero Covid’, we will never get our previous lives back.
Many politicians are driven by lust for power and control or have a hidden agenda. Now, that they have seen how easy it is to subjugate the population using fearmongering and misinformation, they are unlikely to stop. The ultimate victim of Covid will be human rights and common sense. Welcome to the new normal.
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