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Working Paper: Lockdowns Had ‘Little To No Effect On COVID-19 Mortality’ But Had ‘Devastating’ Effects On Society

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THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS - DECEMBER 18: Approximately 100 antivaxxers gather outside the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport to protest against measures to fight the Coronavirus pandemic December 18, 2021 in The Hague, Netherlands.
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Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the meta-analysis as both a study and a working paper. It is a working paper. Furthermore, the paper was not endorsed by Johns Hopkins University. Pushback against the paper has also been added. 

A new working paper from a professor at Johns Hopkins University claims that COVID-19 lockdowns imposed by a variety of governments worldwide had “little to no effect” on COVID-19 mortality. The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, was released by the professor who leads the Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise and conducted by two other professors from around the world. It also found lockdowns “imposed enormous economic and social costs” and are “ill-founded and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument.”

According to the working paper released this week, lockdowns were defined “as the imposition of at least one compulsory, non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI). NPIs are any government mandate that directly restrict peoples’ possibilities, such as policies that limit internal movement, close schools and businesses, and ban international travel.”

The paper then narrowed down 18,590 studies to 34 “‘qualified’ studies after three levels of review.” From those potential studies, “24 qualified for inclusion in the meta-analysis,” used to make their conclusion:

They were separated into three groups: lockdown stringency index studies, shelter-in-placeorder (SIPO) studies, and specific NPI studies. An analysis of each of these three groups support the conclusion that lockdowns have had little to no effect on COVID-19 mortality.

More specifically, stringency index studies find that lockdowns in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% on average.

SIPOs were also ineffective, only reducing COVID-19 mortality by 2.9% on average. Specific NPI studies also find no broad-based evidence of noticeable effects on COVID-19 mortality.

While this meta-analysis concludes that lockdowns have had little to no public health effects, they have imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted. In consequence, lockdown policies are ill-founded. 

The working paper elaborated further, stating that the overall conclusion was “that lockdowns are not an effective way of reducing mortality rates during a pandemic, at least not during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As the working paper noted, “a major purpose of lockdowns is to save lives.”

So did they? The working paper claimed to have answered that question with a resounding “no”:

Finally, allow us to broaden our perspective after presenting our meta-analysis that focuses on the following question: “What does the evidence tell us about the effects of lockdowns on mortality?”

We provide a firm answer to this question: The evidence fails to confirm that lockdowns have a significant effect in reducing COVID-19 mortality. The effect is little to none.

The use of lockdowns is a unique feature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns have not been used to such a large extent during any of the pandemics of the past century.

However, lockdowns during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic have had devastating effects.

They have contributed to reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, causing political unrest, contributing to domestic violence, and undermining liberal democracy.

These costs to society must be compared to the benefits of lockdowns, which our meta-analysis has shown are marginal at best. Such a standard benefit-cost calculation leads to a strong conclusion: lockdowns should be rejected out of hand as a pandemic policy instrument.

The working paper was conducted by three professors from Denmark, Sweden, and the United States:

Jonas Herby (herby@cepos.dk) is special advisor at Center for Political Studies in Copenhagen, Denmark. His research focuses on law and economics. He holds a master’s degree in economics from University of Copenhagen.

Lars Jonung (lars.jonung@nek.lu.se) is professor emeritus in economics at Lund University, Sweden. He served as chairperson of the Swedish Fiscal Policy Council 2012-13, as research advisor at the European Commission 2000-2010, and as chief economic adviser to Prime Minister Carl Bildt in 1992-94. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Steve H. Hanke is a Professor of Applied Economics and Founder & Co-Director of The Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. He is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Troubled Currencies Project at the Cato Institute, a contributor at National Review, a well-known currency reformer, and a currency and commodity trader. Prof. Hanke served on President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, has been an adviser to five foreign heads of state and five foreign cabinet ministers, and held a cabinet-level rank in both Lithuania and Montenegro…

On February 14, Science Feedback pushed back on the working paper, saying that experts have pushed back on its methodology. Read the full Science Feedback report here. Read the full working paper here.

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the publisher as Johns Hopkins University’s “Studies in Applied Economics” Institute. It is the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. 

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