The burden of proof lies with economic lockdown proponents

Who has the burden of proof regarding the economic lockdowns: Those who argue for continuing them or those who want to lift them?  

The public health establishment, the mainstream media and most Democratic politicians assume that the burden of proof lies with the lockdown opponents. Advocates of reopening must show that any change to the current status quo will be “safe.” If the reopeners fail to make that showing, the lockdowns remain in place. With the burden of proof thus configured, proponents of continued economic stasis need not justify the “new normal”; moribund businesses and unemployed workers have become the default mode of social existence. A Tuesday news story in The New York Times exemplified this default thinking: “Public health experts ... have long warned that opening up shops and releasing citizens from their homes could be more difficult and dangerous than shutting them in,” the Times reported. 

In litigation, allocation of the burden of proof often determines the outcome of a case. If the advocates of continued lockdown had that burden, they would have to answer the following questions, now kept off stage: 

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—What have the lockdowns accomplished so far and what will they accomplish in the future? 

—What are the public health consequences of a global depression? 

—Do the benefits of keeping people from working outweigh the costs in lost and stunted lives? 

—How will herd immunity be achieved under lockdown conditions?

A growing number of lockdown skeptics is challenging the received wisdom that lockdowns are necessary to avoid a public health crisis. A Stanford professor of structural biology found that coronavirus infections and deaths have followed a similar curve regardless of government intervention. Once deaths reached a certain share of the population, any initial exponential growth petered out whether the country enforced strict social distancing or not. Sweden has been as successful in controlling the virus as most other nations, though its businesses remain open; its death rate is lower than those of the most hard-hit U.S. states that locked down relatively early. Laos and Cambodia practiced no social distancing but have had no outbreaks. An analysis published in The Wall Street Journal found no statistically significant connection between the rapidity with which a state in the U.S. shut down its economy and its subsequent death rates.  

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The proponents of continued lockdowns couch the issue starkly: You are either for public health or you are against it. You either want to save lives or you are willing to sacrifice them. Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci says his meetings with Trump have 'dramatically decreased' White House: US sends 2M doses of hydroxychloroquine, 1K ventilators to Brazil Some worry 'Operation Warp Speed' plays into anti-vaccination movement's hands MORE asked on Monday: “How many deaths and how much suffering are you willing to accept to get back to what you want to be some form of normality?” The next day, New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoJudd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not Cuomo calls Brooklyn clashes 'disturbing,' asks attorney general to review Overnight Health Care: Trump says US 'terminating' relationship with WHO | Cuomo: NYC on track to start reopening week of June 8 | COVID-19 workplace complaints surge MORE (D) defended his decision to keep most of the state on indefinite lockdown in similarly righteous terms: “To me, I say the cost of a human life is priceless, period. Our reopening plan doesn’t have a trade-off.” 

But both sides of the lockdown debate are motivated by public health concerns. Pace Cuomo, his ornately complicated reopening plan does have a trade-off. Lives are being lost to the lockdown, a toll that will mount the longer the economy remains shuttered. Some doctors estimate that the closure of hospitals to non-coronavirus cases and the reluctance of patients to burden 911 have increased mortality as much as the virus. The global depression will devastate life expectancies in the less-developed world. Overdose deaths and suicides brought on by joblessness and loss of hope will rise, as more and more businesses fold permanently.  

The rhetoric of lockdown proponents is growing more apocalyptic. “A Virus Tightens Its Deadly Grip” announced the lead print headline in Wednesday’s New York Times — even as the data keep reinforcing the case against universal shutdown. Infection outbreaks are occurring in highly specific locales, not universally: nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons. Deaths are tragically concentrated in the former.   

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced the “shocking” news that 84 percent of all hospital admissions were either people sheltering at home or nursing home residents. He shouldn’t have been surprised. The risk of coronavirus infection occurs overwhelmingly indoors. Researchers in China identified only one outdoor outbreak of infection among over a thousand cases studied. Most transmissions occurred at home, rendering the close-down-all-businesses-and-shelter-in-place rule contraindicated. 

The profile of the average coronavirus decedent has not changed since it first emerged in Italy a month ago: 80 or so years old with serious comorbidities. Children are not at risk, yet schools almost everywhere in the U.S. remain closed, imposing a potentially lifelong handicap on the most disadvantaged. Daily deaths from the virus in the U.S. were 4,408 on April 15, and 2,411 on April 28. They were 2,528 on Wednesday. Evidence of widespread undetected infections means that the virus death rate is much lower than initially advertised. 

The demographics of COVID-19 allow for a targeted response. Nursing homes and all congregate facilities must be kept immaculately clean and protected. Over the long term, Americans will need to rethink how they care for elderly parents and how much they are willing to pay for such care. But if the proponents of universal lockdowns had to prove the case for continuing to destroy the complex web of transactions by which human beings flourish, the economy would reopen and millions of livelihoods would be saved. 

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal and the author of the bestselling "War on Cops" and "The Diversity Delusion" (available now). Follow her on Twitter here.