According to a report in the New York Times, the World Food Program is warning that 130 million people face starvation because the “national lockdowns and social distancing measures are drying up work and incomes” and may lead to a devastating disruption of “agricultural production and supply routes.” As the article points out, this problem is compounded by the looting and social destabilization that has taken hold in countries across the globe.
Here at home, massive crowds of people have been forced to wait in lines at food banks that sometimes stretch literally for miles. As 22 million people and counting have been left jobless, and countless business owners stand on the brink, or have already crossed over the brink, of losing everything they worked for, localities are seeing a dramatic rise in suicides, and history tells us there will likely be many thousands more. Add those to the spike in drug overdoses that inevitably accompany even slight increases in the unemployment rate — let alone a 15 percent increase in the span of a few weeks — along with the rises in domestic violence and homelessness, and it’s not hard to see that our strategy to “save lives” may kill many more people than it saves.
Indeed, there is little reason to think that the lockdowns have directly saved any lives. They aren’t even designed to do that. The goal has always been to slow the spread, not stop it, which means over the long term the same number of people will contract the virus as would have contracted it had we never locked down at all. Ideally, this will prevent overcrowding of hospitals and whatever deaths would be occasioned by that, but now that hospitals are being forced to lay off thousands of workers, it is hard to see how this strategy has helped much in terms of medical preparedness.
Perhaps, when all is said and done, there will be some people — maybe even thousands of people — who would have died from the coronavirus yet were spared because we shut down society. But how many people across the world will now starve to death but would have lived had we not shut down society? How many will commit suicide or succumb to drug overdoses but would still be alive and thriving had we not stripped them of their livelihoods? Research shows that each 1 percent increase in unemployment correlates with 37,000 additional fatalities. Will that hold true in our case? If so, the carnage will be historic in proportion. The question remains: will more people be saved or killed by this strategy? It seems that a very good case could be made for the latter.
We will never know for sure what could have happened, or what did happen that would not have happened. But the anti-lockdown crowd has plenty of data on its side. Enough, at least, to put to rest the absurd charge that we are “choosing money over people.” It is people we are worried about — people starving, people in despair, people suffering in unimaginable ways. This is not a question of whether we should save lives. Both sides want to do that. The question is how best to achieve that end. And it seems that we may have chosen the worst possible method.