Coronavirus Update: The Control Freaks in the U.S. (and Elsewhere) Blew It

Regarding the pandemic, I wrote this last year about U.S. politicians (mostly Democrats):

It has been assumed that the citizenry would be best served through governmental edicts such as mask-wearing, social distancing, lockdowns, and, ultimately, involuntary vaccinations.

But there is an alternative hypothesis: Such measures have merely delayed the inevitable and made it worse by creating the conditions for the evolution of more contagious and perhaps deadlier strains of the coronavirus. Under that hypothesis, if the first stage of the coronavirus had been allowed to run rampant, herd immunity would have been achieved. The most vulnerable among us would have died or suffered at length before recovering (and then, perhaps, only partially). But that would have happened in any case.

Widespread exposure to the disease would have meant the natural immunization of most of the populace through exposure to the coronavirus and the development of antibodies through that exposure — which, for most of the populace, isn’t lethal or debilitating.

Natural immunization (and thus herd immunity) didn’t happen because of mask-wearing, social distancing, lockdowns, and forced vaccinations (governmentally encouraged, even if nominally private). And so, the coronavirus is becoming deadlier instead of dying out on its own.

In the end, millions of people will have suffered and died needlessly because politicians and bureaucrats couldn’t (and can’t) resist the urge to do something — and because they have the power to make something happen.

You have probably read recent reports about how the draconian approach taken by U.S. officials was extremely counterproductive. Here are some relevant excerpts from a Washington Monthly article:

While most countries imposed draconian restrictions, there was an exception: Sweden. Early in the pandemic, Swedish schools and offices closed briefly but then reopened. Restaurants never closed. Businesses stayed open. Kids under 16 went to school.

That stood in contrast to the U.S. By April 2020, the CDC and the National Institutes of Health recommended far-reaching lockdowns that threw millions of Americans out of work. A kind of groupthink set in. In print and on social media, colleagues attacked experts who advocated a less draconian approach. Some received obscene emails and death threats. Within the scientific community, opposition to the dominant narrative was castigated and censored, cutting off what should have been vigorous debate and analysis.

In this intolerant atmosphere, Sweden’s “light touch,” as it is often referred to by scientists and policy makers, was deemed a disaster. “Sweden Has Become the World’s Cautionary Tale,” carped The New York Times. Reuters reported, “Sweden’s COVID Infections Among Highest in Europe, With ‘No Sign Of Decrease.’” Medical journals published equally damning reports of Sweden’s folly.

But Sweden seems to have been right. Countries that took the severe route to stem the virus might want to look at the evidence found in a little-known 2021 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The researchers found that among 11 wealthy peer nations, Sweden was the only one with no excess mortality among individuals under 75. None, zero, zip.

That’s not to say that Sweden had no deaths from COVID. It did. But it appears to have avoided the collateral damage that lockdowns wreaked in other countries. The Kaiser study wisely looked at excess mortality, rather than the more commonly used metric of COVID deaths. This means that researchers examined mortality rates from all causes of death in the 11 countries before the pandemic and compared those rates to mortality from all causes during the pandemic. If a country averaged 1 million deaths per year before the pandemic but had 1.3 million deaths in 2020, excess mortality would be 30 percent….

The Kaiser results might seem surprising, but other data have confirmed them. As of February, Our World in Data, a database maintained by the University of Oxford, shows that Sweden continues to have low excess mortality, now slightly lower than Germany, which had strict lockdowns. Another study found no increased mortality in Sweden in those under 70. Most recently, a Swedish commission evaluating the country’s pandemic response determined that although it was slow to protect the elderly and others at heightened risk from COVID in the initial stages, its laissez-faire approach was broadly correct….

One of the most pernicious effects of lockdowns was the loss of social support, which contributed to a dramatic rise in deaths related to alcohol and drug abuse. According to a recent report in the medical journal JAMAeven before the pandemic such “deaths of despair” were already high and rising rapidly in the U.S., but not in other industrialized countries. Lockdowns sent those numbers soaring.

The U.S. response to COVID was the worst of both worlds. Shutting down businesses and closing everything from gyms to nightclubs shielded younger Americans at low risk of COVID but did little to protect the vulnerable. School closures meant chaos for kids and stymied their learning and social development. These effects are widely considered so devastating that they will linger for years to come. While the U.S. was shutting down schools to protect kids, Swedish children were safe even with school doors wide open. According to a 2021 research letter, there wasn’t a single COVID death among Swedish children, despite schools remaining open for children under 16….

Of the potential years of life lost in the U.S., 30 percent were among Blacks and another 31 percent were among Hispanics; both rates are far higher than the demographics’ share of the population. Lockdowns were especially hard on young workers and their families. According to the Kaiser report, among those who died in 2020, people lost an average of 14 years of life in the U.S. versus eight years lost in peer countries. In other words, the young were more likely to die in the U.S. than in other countries, and many of those deaths were likely due to lockdowns rather than COVID.

And that ain’t all. There’s also this working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which concludes:

The first estimates of the effects of COVID-19 on the number of business owners from nationally representative April 2020 CPS data indicate dramatic early-stage reductions in small business activity. The number of active business owners in the United States plunged from 15.0 million to 11.7 million over the crucial two-month window from February to April 2020. No other one-, two- or even 12-month window of time has ever shown such a large change in business activity. For comparison, from the start to end of the Great Recession the number of business owners decreased by 730,000 representing only a 5 percent reduction. In general, business ownership is relatively steady over the business cycle (Fairlie 2013; Parker 2018). The loss of 3.3 million business owners (or 22 percent) was comprised of large drops in important subgroups such as owners working roughly two days per week (28 percent), owners working four days a week (31 percent), and incorporated businesses (20 percent).

And that was two years ago, before the political panic had spawned a destructive tsunami of draconian measures.

The fixation on containing the coronavirus to the exclusion of other — more important — objectives reminds me of Frédéric Bastiat‘s parable of the broken window: “That Which We See and That Which We Do Not See“. It is a lesson about opportunity costs. The opportunity costs of tilting against the windmill of COVID-19 were and are vast and largely irreparable social and economic losses.

Related reading:

Jean Curthoys, “Did We Make Things Worse [with mass vaccinations]?” [Yes!], Spectator Australia, May 2, 2022

Leslie Eastman, “New Study Shows Face Mask Usage Did Not Correlate With Better Outcomes“, Legal Insurrection, May 6, 2022