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3 prominent economists slam COVID lockdowns and school closures and say they should never happen again

February 2, 2022, 6:28 PM UTC

When the COVID outbreak began in early 2020, a number of studies predicted that government-imposed lockdowns would prove highly effective in preventing deaths. A widely cited epidemiological paper by researchers at Imperial College London predicted that such measures as bans on travel and shelter-in-place mandates would reduce mortality from the virus by 98%. But now, a new analysis by three prominent economists that surveys all empirical data from the academic literature measuring the relationship between death and lockdowns finds that forced restrictions didn’t work. Their conclusion: Lockdowns reduced mortalities by a minuscule 0.2%. That figure––and it’s so small as to be statistically questionable––simply wasn’t worth the costs, in their view. As the report states, “This meta-analysis concludes that lockdowns had little or no health effects, [but] they have imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted. In consequence, lockdown policies are ill-founded and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument.”

Two authors of the study are Scandinavian. Jonas Herby is special adviser at the Center for Political Studies in Copenhagen. Lars Jonung is a former economic adviser for the EU who for over a decade headed Sweden’s Fiscal Policy Council, the agency that assesses the results of the nation’s economic policies. The third is Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University. Hanke served on President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, and has long been one of the world’s leading counselors to developing nations on monetary policy, having helped pioneer dollarization in Ecuador and El Salvador and held cabinet-level positions in Lithuania and Montenegro. The coauthors are clearly free marketers. But their academic standing, the vast quantities of data they analyzed, and their sophisticated methodology make a strong case for their conclusions.

The study’s methodology

The study defines lockdowns as “compulsory non-pharmaceutical interventions,” or what’s commonly known as NPIs. They include restrictions on travel, school closures, bans on international travel, restrictions on movement within a country’s borders, and mask mandates. The list excludes voluntary measures such as social distancing, as well as government-sponsored testing and vaccination campaigns. The authors didn’t collect their own data. Instead, they examined all of the academic literature on the topic, and distilled the findings of the most convincing papers. That process provided the most comprehensive view to date of the true effectiveness of lockdowns. They concentrate on the early days of the pandemic, spanning March to June of 2020, when the restrictions were most severe. The authors note that lockdowns were virtually universal. Of the 186 nations followed by the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, all but one––the Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros––imposed at least one NPI by the end of March 2020.

The authors examined almost 19,000 studies to find the ones with the best data and measurement periods. They also chose those that provided the same metric––reduction in mortality rate per 1 million population––that enabled them to put the results side by side and reach an overall estimate of the lockdowns’ impact. In the end, they filtered the immense list to 24 studies of the pandemic’s first few months for their “meta-analysis.” Their choices divide into three categories. The first are “stringency index studies” that measure how the severity of the lockdown regime influences mortality rates. The second is “shelter-in-place order” or SIPO restrictions, and the third encompasses studies of individual measures such as shuttering schools or closures of businesses ranging from corporate offices to bars.

The findings

Seven studies qualified for the the “stringency index” analysis. Only one found a substantial effect from lockdowns. On average, the authors found, the compulsory restrictions lowered mortality by that 0.2%. From the start of March to May 20, 164,500 people in Europe suffering from COVID died; the figure in the U.S. was 97,100. A reduction of 0.2% in the mortality rate, if the number is correct, would have saved 329 lives in Europe, and 194 in the U.S. For shelter-in-place mandates, the study found no “noticeable impact on COVID-19 mortality.” On individual restrictions, the authors saw “some evidence” that business closures reduced mortality, primarily from shutting down bars. But they found “no evidence that [other] lockdowns, school closures, border closures, and limiting gatherings have had a noticeable effect.”

The conclusions raise difficult societal issues. Although the lockdowns appear to have had little impact, they may have saved a small number of lives in the study period when the virus first raged. But the U.S. paid a huge price in lost jobs, businesses that never reopened, and kids deprived of going to school––not to mention the deep malaise that caused a pandemic of suicides. Overall, the data tells Hanke that the world’s citizens left to their own devices would have handled the pandemic better, and that fewer lives would perhaps have been lost with no lockdowns at all. “My overall takeaway from our research is very consistent with conclusions that have been drawn from Friedrich Hayek: ‘Individuals who are allowed to make free choices make better decisions on risk management than governments do,’” Hanke told Fortune. The paper that Hanke coauthored will surely be controversial. It’s a valuable entry in what will be one of the hottest areas of research in the years to come, all in search of answering: Was all the pain from lockdowns really worth it?

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