Covid Lockdown Cost/Benefits:
A Critical Assessment of the Literature
by Douglas W. Allen, Professor of Economics at Simon Fraser University
An examination of over 80 Covid-19 studies reveals that many relied on assumptions that were false, and which tended to over-estimate the benefits and underestimate the costs of lockdown.
As a result, most of the early cost/benefit studies arrived at conclusions that were refuted later by data, and which rendered their cost/benefit findings incorrect.
Research done over the past six months has shown that lockdowns have had, at best, a marginal effect on the number of Covid-19 deaths. Generally speaking, the ineffectiveness of lockdown stems from voluntary changes in behavior.
Lockdown jurisdictions were not able to prevent noncompliance, and non-lockdown jurisdictions benefited from voluntary changes in behavior that mimicked lockdowns.
The limited effectiveness of lockdowns explains why, after one year, the unconditional cumulative deaths per million, and the pattern of daily deaths per million, is not negatively correlated with the stringency of lockdown across countries.
Using a cost/benefit method proposed by Professor Bryan Caplan, and using two extreme assumptions of lockdown effectiveness, the cost/benefit ratio of lockdowns in Canada, in terms of life-years saved, is between 3.6–282.
That is, it is possible that lockdown will go down as one of the greatest peacetime policy failures in Canada’s history.
[To read the full report, go here: http://www.sfu.ca/~allen/LockdownReport.pdf
A review of the Covid-19 lockdown cost/benefit literature shows that the early cases made for lockdown rested on several unrealistic assumptions. These assumptions included that the virus continues to spread exponentially until herd immunity is reached, that individuals never change behavior in light of a viral threat, and that the value of lives lost is independent of age and around $10M.
Over the course of the last year research has revealed that simple SIRS models fail to predict the progression of the virus, that individual reactions to the virus are important, and that the costs of blanket lockdowns are far reaching and large.
Lockdowns have some effect on cases, transmissions, and deaths, but these effects are marginal. As a result, lockdowns fail to pass a cost/benefit test.
One could argue that the Covid-19 lockdown policy was only wrong ex post. Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back is unfair. In March of 2020, faced with an unknown virus and expert advice that millions of people would die without lockdown and isolation, politicians and public health officials made the correct decision at the time. Such an argument is reasonable for March of 2020, and even possibly for April 2020.
However, as noted in the literature review, by late April it was already known that i) the empirical predictions of the SIRS based models were wrong, ii) that the models made a number of questionable assumptions, iii) that the deaths were highly skewed to the elderly, and iv) that the costs were large.
The progression of understanding about the virus has improved over time, but it has not fundamentally changed. By August there was enough information available to show that any reasonable cost/benefit analysis would show that lockdown was creating more harm than good. It is unreasonable to suggest that a proper decision could not have been made in the fall when the second wave of infections hit.
An article which supports the above conclusion:
Canadian expert’s research finds lockdown harms are 10 times greater than benefits
by Anthony Furey • January 9, 2021
Dr. Ari Joffe is a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton and a Clinical Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at University of Alberta. He has written a paper titled COVID-19: Rethinking the Lockdown Groupthink that finds the harms of lockdowns are 10 times greater than their benefits.
You were a strong proponent of lockdowns initially but have since changed your mind. Why is that?
There are a few reasons why I supported lockdowns at first.
First, initial data falsely suggested that the infection fatality rate was up to 2-3%, that over 80% of the population would be infected, and modelling suggested repeated lockdowns would be necessary. But emerging data showed that the median infection fatality rate is 0.23%, that the median infection fatality rate in people under 70 years old is 0.05%, and that the high-risk group is older people especially those with severe co-morbidities. In addition, it is likely that in most situations only 20-40% of the population would be infected before ongoing transmission is limited (i.e., herd-immunity).
Second, I am an infectious diseases and critical care physician, and am not trained to make public policy decisions. I was only considering the direct effects of COVID-19 and my knowledge of how to prevent these direct effects. I was not considering the immense effects of the response to COVID-19 (that is, lockdowns) on public health and wellbeing.
Emerging data has shown a staggering amount of so-called ‘collateral damage’ due to the lockdowns. This can be predicted to adversely affect many millions of people globally with food insecurity [82-132 million more people], severe poverty [70 million more people], maternal and under age-5 mortality from interrupted healthcare [1.7 million more people], infectious diseases deaths from interrupted services [millions of people with Tuberculosis, Malaria, and HIV], school closures for children [affecting children’s future earning potential and lifespan], interrupted vaccination campaigns for millions of children, and intimate partner violence for millions of women. In high-income countries adverse effects also occur from delayed and interrupted healthcare, unemployment, loneliness, deteriorating mental health, increased opioid crisis deaths, and more.
Third, a formal cost-benefit analysis of different responses to the pandemic was not done by government or public health experts. Initially, I simply assumed that lockdowns to suppress the pandemic were the best approach. But policy decisions on public health should require a cost-benefit analysis. Since lockdowns are a public health intervention, aiming to improve the population wellbeing, we must consider both benefits of lockdowns, and costs of lockdowns on the population wellbeing. Once I became more informed, I realized that lockdowns cause far more harm than they prevent.
There has never been a full cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns done in Canada. What did you find when you did yours?
First, some background into the cost-benefit analysis. I discovered information I was not aware of before. First, framing decisions as between saving lives versus saving the economy is a false dichotomy. There is a strong long-run relationship between economic recession and public health. This makes sense, as government spending on things like healthcare, education, roads, sanitation, housing, nutrition, vaccines, safety, social security nets, clean energy, and other services determines the population well-being and life-expectancy.
If the government is forced to spend less on these social determinants of health, there will be ‘statistical lives’ lost, that is, people will die in the years to come. Second, I had underestimated the effects of loneliness and unemployment on public health. It turns out that loneliness and unemployment are known to be among the strongest risk factors for early mortality, reduced lifespan, and chronic diseases. Third, in making policy decisions there are trade-offs to consider, costs and benefits, and we have to choose between options that each have tragic outcomes in order to advocate for the least people to die as possible.
In the cost-benefit analysis I consider the benefits of lockdowns in preventing deaths from COVID-19, and the costs of lockdowns in terms of the effects of the recession, loneliness, and unemployment on population wellbeing and mortality. I did not consider all of the other so-called ‘collateral damage’ of lockdowns mentioned above. It turned out that the costs of lockdowns are at least 10 times higher than the benefits. That is, lockdowns cause far more harm to population wellbeing than COVID-19 can. It is important to note that I support a focused protection approach, where we aim to protect those truly at high-risk of COVID-19 mortality, including older people, especially those with severe co-morbidities and those in nursing homes and hospitals.
You studied the role modelling played in shaping public opinion. Can you break that down for us?
I think that the initial modelling and forecasting were inaccurate. This led to a contagion of fear and policies across the world. Popular media focused on absolute numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths independent of context. There has been a sheer one-sided focus on preventing infection numbers. The economist Paul Frijters wrote that it was “all about seeming to reduce risks of infection and deaths from this one particular disease, to the exclusion of all other health risks or other life concerns.”
Fear and anxiety spread, and we elevated COVID-19 above everything else that could possibly matter. Our cognitive biases prevented us from making optimal policy: we ignored hidden ‘statistical deaths’ reported at the population level, we preferred immediate benefits to even larger benefits in the future, we disregarded evidence that disproved our favorite theory, and escalated our commitment in the set course of action.
I found out that in Canada in 2018 there were over 23,000 deaths per month and over 775 deaths per day. In the world in 2019 there were over 58 million deaths and about 160,000 deaths per day. This means that on November 21 this year, COVID-19 accounted for 5.23% of deaths in Canada (2.42% in Alberta), and 3.06% of global deaths. Each day in non-pandemic years over 21,000 people die from tobacco use, 3,600 from pneumonia and diarrhea in children under 5-years-old, and 4,110 from Tuberculosis. We need to consider the tragic COVID-19 numbers in context.
I believe that we need to take an “effortful pause” and reconsider the information available to us. We need to calibrate our response to the true risk, make rational cost-benefit analyses of the trade-offs, and end the lockdown groupthink.
Canada has already been going down the lockdown path for many months. What should be done now? How do we change course?
As above, I believe that we need to take an “effortful pause” and reconsider the information available to us. We need to calibrate our response to the true risk, make rational cost-benefit analyses of the trade-offs, and end the lockdown groupthink. Some considerations I have suggested elsewhere include the following:
We need to better educate ourselves on the risks and trade-offs involved, and alleviate unreasonable fear with accurate information. We need to focus on cost-benefit analysis – repeated or prolonged lockdowns cannot be based on COVID-19 numbers alone.
We should focus on protecting people at high risk: people hospitalized or in nursing homes (e.g., universal masking in hospitals reduced transmission markedly), in crowded conditions (e.g., homeless shelters, prisons, large gatherings), and 70 years and older (especially with severe comorbidities) – don’t lock down everyone, regardless of their individual risk.
We need to keep schools open because children have very low morbidity and mortality from COVID-19, and (especially those 10 years and younger) are less likely to be infected by, and have a low likelihood to be the source of transmission of, SARS-CoV-2.
We should increase healthcare surge capacity if forecasting, accurately calibrated repeatedly to real-time data (up to now, forecasting, even short-term, has repeatedly failed), suggests it is needed. With universal masking in hospitals, asymptomatic health care workers should be allowed to continue to work, even if infected, thus preserving the healthcare workforce.
And another article that reaches a similar conclusion, but with reference to the human cost:
Lockdowns killed more Canadians under 65 than COVID-19: Statscan
By Harrison Faulkner, True North -July 18, 2021
The consequences of government-enforced lockdowns killed more Canadians under the age of 65 than the COVID-19 virus itself, according to a report by Statistics Canada.
In a report titled Provisional death counts and excess mortality, the government agency reviewed the number of deaths between January 2020 to April 2021 and concluded that 5,535 Canadians under the age of 65 died because of “indirect consequences” due to the pandemic.
Over the same time period, 1380 Canadians in the same age group died because of COVID-19 itself.
“Beyond deaths attributed to the disease itself, the pandemic could also have indirect consequences leading to an increase or decrease in the number of deaths due to various factors, including delayed medical procedures, increased substance use, or a decline in deaths attributable to other causes, such as influenza,” the report says.
Statistics Canada acknowledged lockdowns had a significant impact on the number of deaths in Canada, particularly among younger people.
“Excess mortality is, in large part, related to other factors such as increases in the number deaths attributed to causes associated with substance use and misuse, including unintentional (accidental) poisonings and diseases and conditions related to alcohol consumption,” read the report.
As more Canadians were forced to stay at home and vital services and businesses were forced to close, an opioid crisis developed while governments focused on reducing the spread of COVID-19. Statistics Canada confirmed that the increased usage of drugs had a significant impact on the mortality rate during the pandemic.
“There is evidence in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia that substance use has increased in 2020 compared with previous years, while availability and access to harm reduction programs, supervised consumption services, and in-person support services for substance use may have been disrupted during the pandemic,” the report says.
Earlier this month, Statistics Canada also reported that most of the people who died from COVID-19 in Canada were over the age of 85 and had dementia, Alzheimer’s, chronic heart disease or other pre-existing “cardiovascular and respiratory conditions.”
Nine in 10 deaths had a secondary cause listed on the death certificate.
Canadians have been victims of some of the strictest public health orders in the world, rivalling communist countries like China and Cuba.
The True North Provincial Freedom Score found that Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Ontario were the most locked-down provinces in the country when taking into account business closures, school openings, in-person dining and nearly a dozen other variables.
Even more confirmation:
The most crushing pandemic debt in the G20, and thousands of deaths attributable to the effects of lockdowns
by Tristin Hopper, National Post, July 28, 2021 249 Comments
Canada is entering the post-lockdown era. We are officially the most vaccinated country on earth and our daily rate of COVID-19 fatalities has plummeted to just one in every two million Canadians.
Canada’s pandemic response, particularly in Ontario, has been defined by strict lockdowns — often at a level of severity well beyond anything seen in the rest of the developed world.
It will take years to fully assess the societal costs of social distancing, from learning loss in schools to a rise in famine conditions caused by disruptions to global trade. Below is a rough accounting of the price Canada has paid thus far.
This is by far the most expensive thing Canada has ever done
In March 2020, just as the first stay-at-home orders were hitting Canadian cities, the country’s federal debt stood at $721.4 billion. Only one year later, the Department of Finance was pegging the debt load at $1.2 trillion.
It took 153 years to get to $721.4 billion, and in one year Canada grew that total by 66 per cent. That’s enough debt to pay for Canada’s entire inflation-adjusted contribution to the Second World War.
And that’s just federal spending. COVID-19 has also blown out the debt of every other conceivable public institution in the country.
In the three post-pandemic years, Ontario is set to run up as much debt as the prior 10 years combined (which themselves were not known for their fiscal discipline). Dozens of Canadian post-secondary institutions are posting multi-million dollar deficits, often for the first time. Newfoundland and Labrador’s already-shaky financial situation has been thrust onto the brink of bankruptcy.
Even in a world where everyone is ramping up government debt to deal with COVID-19, Canada has the dubious distinction of being the most spendthrift. An analysis by the National Bank of Canada found that relative debt burden under COVID-19 had grown faster in Canada than any other G20 nation. “While fiscal deterioration is the name of the game in the G-20, Canada holds the distinction of being the nation whose financial position is expected to worsen the most in 2020,” wrote the bank in a report last October.
For now, all this unprecedented borrowing has not overly compromised Canada’s federal credit rating, but the consequences will begin to show in future budgets as the cost of servicing debt becomes our single greatest public expense. By 2025, roughly 10 cents of every federal tax dollar will go towards servicing Canada’s public debt.
Downtown cores have been gutted, and a significant share of small businesses aren’t coming back
Any Canadian city-dweller knows that they are exiting this pandemic with downtown cores that look significantly different than the downtown cores that existed at the pandemic’s inception.
This spring, Toronto photographer Ryan Bolton walked down the city’s iconic Queen Street West documenting the dozens of retail spaces vacated by businesses that could not survive the pandemic. It’s a similar scene in Vancouver, whose commercial sector has been described as “spookily quiet” after vacancy rates hit 8.4 per cent earlier this year.
It’s difficult to put an exact figure on the number of businesses wiped out by COVID-19, but a running list of retail closures includes everything from the shuttering of 300 Canadian Starbucks locations to the mass-closure of Canadian Disney stores. In November, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business was estimating that 225,000 firms would not survive the pandemic.
And the worst wave of business closures may be yet to come. Last month, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce projected that a disproportionately high rate of bankruptcies and business closures could extend well into 2022.
Many businesses that were critically wounded by COVID-19 remain open by taking on debt or relying on government supports such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. This is particularly true of sectors such as tourism, where revenue isn’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels for several years.
Thousands have died from the knock-on effects of lockdowns, with thousands more projected to die
As of this writing, Canadian COVID-19 deaths stood at 26,550. Second only to the Spanish Flu, the toll makes COVID-19 our deadliest natural disaster. However, Canada’s average death rate (70.53 per 100,000) is roughly in league with Israel, which has often received praise for its handling of the pandemic.
If Canada had been hit by the same death rates that struck the U.K. (193.70 per 100,000) or the U.S. (186.13 per 100,000), we would have seen an additional 47,000 fatalities. If we had been hit by the same death rates that have plagued Peru — the world’s hardest hit country for COVID — up to 220,000 Canadians would be dead.
However, COVID-19 deaths have overshadowed a dramatic rise in fatalities in other areas, often as as a direct result of pandemic measures.
Most notably, the opioid crisis has never been worse. Between April and December of 2020, 5,148 Canadians died of an overdose, a rise of 89 per cent over the same period in 2019. As Health Canada has theorized, border closures made the illicit drug supply more toxic, and social distance caused the curbing of medical services that had previously been instrumental in keeping many addicts alive.
The months-long suspension of routine medical services is also expected to yield a rise in preventable cancer deaths that will be playing out for years after the official end of lockdowns. Modelling by Statistics Canada has estimated than an extra 440 Canadians will die of colorectal cancer as a result of the more than 540,000 screenings missed during the pandemic.
A November paper in the Journal of Medical Screening similarly estimated that just six months of missed mammograms could yield up to 250 additional breast cancer deaths in Canada. In Quebec, the province’s health ministry has estimated that up to 4,000 people have gone undiagnosed with cancer as a result of a sharp dropoff in mammograms, pap smears and colorectal cancer screens.
One spot of good news, however, is that lockdowns haven’t inspired a spike in deaths in the one category where everybody assumed they would: suicides. Although the pandemic has played havoc with people’s mental health, the number of Canadians taking their own lives under lockdown has either remained stable or gone into decline.
It was also the Chinese Communist Party, the mainstream media, Big Tech social media, Big Pharma, the ‘fact-checkers’, the corrupt physicians, and countless pundits.