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Lockdowns: Never again

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People protest lockdowns, March 1, 2021.

Two years ago, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an order she called a “Temporary requirement to suspend activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life.” Relying on a law that was unconstitutional and is now repealed, the governor prohibited every resident in the state, under penalty of law, from leaving their home unless they were doing something permitted by her executive order. This policy was historically unprecedented; today, we call it a lockdown. We should never do it again.

Consider a few basic realities about lockdowns. First, they rest on a questionable assumption — that easily transmissible viruses can be sufficiently contained by simply restricting social mobility. This has proved false repeatedly over the two years of experience with COVID-19. No matter the strictness of lockdown policies in a state or country, the coronavirus found its way into virtually every human population. The fact that the virus also spreads in animal populations all but invalidates this basic assumption upon which lockdowns are built.

One reason lockdowns did not sufficiently contain COVID-19 is likely because they do not reduce social mobility to a meaningful degree. Even when people are forced to stay in their homes by government decree and under penalty of law, raw materials must be delivered, machines serviced, fuel purchased, grass mowed, water supplied, garbage collected, etc. That means there will always be some people moving about in public, breathing the same air and potentially spreading viruses. In other words, complete lockdowns, the type that potentially could reduce viral spread, are impossible.

To show how little effect lockdowns can have, consider Michigan’s experience. Whitmer issued one of the nation’s most strict lockdowns. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a higher portion of Michigan businesses were forced to close than in any other state.

The state’s own data show that by the time the governor’s lockdown took effect, about 30 percent of the public was already staying home. This increased slightly to 32 percent in the first week or two of the lockdown, but then started decreasing. By the time the order was lifted, social mobility was nearly back to its 2019 level. In other words, social interactions and opportunities for viral spread actually increased during the course of Michigan’s stay-at-home order. All the lockdown could have accomplished was to potentially delay this eventual rise in mobility.

Because they cannot halt the transmission of respiratory viruses, some people will be exposed during a lockdown. This disproportionately impacts people who cannot shelter in place for weeks on end. Here is another structural problem with lockdowns: They shift the burden of disease onto the portion of the population that cannot work from home, carry out virtual homeschooling or afford ordering in all their food and supplies. The end result is that lockdowns tend to shield the wealthier in society at the expense of the less well off, many of whom have no choice but to be the first to expose themselves to the risks of the new disease.

Another reality to keep in mind when judging the effectiveness of lockdowns is that there are real limits to what governments can accomplish. One such limit is enforcing a sweeping order that requires significant behavioral changes to the lives of millions of people. American municipal and state governments cannot police the private activity of every individual in real-time (thankfully). They simply do not have the capability. The bit of enforcement that does happen then comes off as haphazard and arbitrary, breeding discontent. In practice, this fuels public anxiety; people are never certain which behavior is acceptable and which might result in public shame, a fine or jail time.

It is also important to remember that the COVID-19 lockdowns were unprecedented. They were an experiment, and, as was evident from the early days of the pandemic, many public officials in charge simply made up the rules on the fly. This led to policies that were confusing and sporadic, causing more anxiety as people were left to guess what drastic action might come next. Governments should not attempt to broadly implement experimental and underdeveloped policies, because these are especially prone to negative unintended consequences.

The novelty of lockdowns means the burden of proof is on the policy to prove its worth. Lockdowns have not met this requirement — they have obvious and significant costs and little concrete evidence of effectiveness. Admittedly, it is difficult to disentangle the costs of lockdowns from the harms imposed by the pandemic itself. Accounting for all the damage is probably impossible. But the clear negative impacts from lockdowns — such as bankrupted businesses, delayed or skipped medical treatment, learning losses, reduced income and the incalculable damage to overall mental and emotional health — are nevertheless real.

Two years out from lockdowns, politicians may have learned this lesson on lockdowns. In the most recent COVID-19 waves — considered more transmissible and just as deadly as those that triggered government interventions — most public officials shunned lockdowns. They now merely advise people to take responsibility for their own risk and to “learn to live with COVID,” something their lockdowns specifically prevented. 

We’ll never know for sure if this would have been a more successful approach to limiting the harms associated with COVID-19, but let’s hope the next time a pandemic appears our public leaders lose the lockdowns in favor of a more conventional and realistic effort.

Michael Van Beek is director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID-19 economy Gretchen Whitmer

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