Coronavirus lockdowns are definitively ending; the question is why they failed. There is no single answer, but rather several, ranging from arbitrary to authoritarian. Looking back, the lockdowns were predestined to fail; looking forward, the authorities — government and expert — who backed them, all but ensured they will not return to the same degree.
The coronavirus timeline was exceptionally short before triggering the most sweeping lockdowns in American history. On Jan. 21, America’s first coronavirus case was identified; almost one month later, on Feb. 26, America’s first local transmission of coronavirus occurred. Roughly two weeks later, in mid-March, state lockdowns began; by month’s end, most states had implemented them.
Reopenings didn’t begin till mid-May. Nationwide, many restrictions continue and the timing of fully lifting them remains unclear — even as some states try to partially reinstate them. What is clear is this: Despite their unprecedented three-month grip and COVID’19’s continued presence, lockdowns’ strangle hold has been broken.
How could something so unprecedented, have arisen so quickly, gripped so tightly and then ended so abruptly — even with coronavirus still so prevalent?
Lockdowns’ sudden imposition, their statewide implementation and the dissimilarity in individual state responses gave them an instantly arbitrary nature. Different states treated similar areas and activities differently; individual states treated different areas and activities similarly. The glaring contradictions became increasingly obvious — and onerous — as the lockdowns dragged on.
Frequently, the resulting perception was that the lockdowns were inconsistent at best and unnecessary at worst. The inconsistencies often exposed errors in states’ responses — New York’s handling of nursing homes being among the most egregious examples.
Much advice on coronavirus has been contradictory too. Early, coronavirus itself was deemed not a global threat by some — Democrats even denounced President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE’s early China travel ban. Initially, authorities dismissed masks’ value; currently they are considered important. Can asymptomatic people transmit the disease? The WHO said no as late as March 26. How dangerous is transmission from surfaces? The jury still appears to be out, but the biggest concern is now airborne transmission.
This contradictory nature also extended to the authorities’ approach and goals. Despite the primary aim being preserving public health, health care for non-coronavirus conditions was often impeded. Doctor visits dropped, as well as emergency room visits, because patients feared the virus more than other serious conditions.
Of course, the authorities’ approach was astronomically expensive. Over 40 million have filed for unemployment, small businesses shuttered and virtually every American’s life and work has been affected. America’s gross costs are just that — gross: First quarter GDP fell five percent, Q2 will be even worse and the IMF has estimated that annual GDP will fall eight percent. CNBC estimates that just federal intervention alone (from legislation and Federal Reserve action) currently amounts to $8 trillion.
The full costs will never be fully known; unfortunately, in many individual cases, they also will never be recovered. As a result, in addition to the public’s evidentiary and emotional doubts, there was severe economic damage too.
There also was no little hypocrisy in the authorities’ actions. Neil Ferguson (dubbed “Professor Lockdown” in UK tabloids), Britain’s lockdown proponent, who was caught “not social distancing” with his married lover, was a comically extreme form. However, examples closer to home were hardly lacking.
Lockdowns’ strongest supporters were often among the least affected by their negative consequences. Government officials implementing and enforcing the lockdowns had ways of circumventing impacts — all while still being paid. The House of Representatives went so far as to abandon in-person voting for the first time in history.
Authorities’ ultimate hypocrisy — and ultimate admission that lockdowns were over — occurred with their treatment of the protests following George Floyd’s death. Suddenly social distancing and all coronavirus protocol concerns disappeared. Everything once banned in previously legal behavior was now allowed.
Cumulatively, what undid the lockdowns was their quintessentially authoritarian nature. The lockdowns were fundamentally antithetical to America’s democratic foundation. These severest of government actions were not decided by the people but imposed on them. In contrast, to most government policies, which have at least a veneer of democratic blessing, the lockdowns had a decidedly autocratic one.
In their zeal, the authorities — government and expert — combined to grossly mishandle the lockdowns, from their rapid start to their rapid end. Americans did not simply rebel — though they certainly approached it — yet authorities inadvertently gave them every justification to do so.
Even if lockdowns were the best strategy, the authorities, espousing and imposing them repeatedly, undermined their legitimacy. Authorities have so discredited the lockdowns that there is little chance lockdowns can be reimposed at their prior level — even if they are needed.
There will be many postmortems on the lockdowns. Expect much focus on the authorities’ intent, but little on their repeated failures. In the end, Americans were more repelled than they rebelled, with both occurring because of authorities’ repeated failures.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.