John Locke Update / Research Brief

New research warns: the death toll from lockdowns will far exceed that of COVID-19

posted on in COVID-19 Series, Economics, Human Flourishing, Law & Regulation, Research Review, Rights & Regulation
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  • Amid protests, a school reopening bill, and bad poll numbers, Gov. Roy Cooper suddenly changed course to call for reopening schools, citing new research done in North Carolina
  • Meanwhile, new research from professors at Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard warns that the long-term death toll from the economic impact of lockdowns and other government COVID-19 containment measures could far exceed that of the virus itself
  • Researchers estimate that the increase in excess deaths in the US exacerbated by lockdowns and other restrictions like Cooper’s could be 1.37 million over the next 20 years

On Friday, Jan. 29, Republicans in the General Assembly announced that they would soon be filing a bill to require North Carolina public schools to reopen for in-person instruction. That weekend, parents in North Carolina made national news rallying outside the governor’s mansion for schools to be reopened. Their demands were further amplified by a statewide Civitas poll showing a strong plurality of respondents (45.9 percent) disapproved of how Gov. Roy Cooper was handling school reopening.

Cooper abruptly changed course, announcing in a press briefing Tuesday, Feb. 2, that he was strongly urging schools to reopen. Cooper attributed his sudden change of heart to … new research:

Right now, what’s new is that research done right here in North Carolina tells us that in-person learning is working and that students can be in classrooms safely with the right safety protocols in place.

Never mind that such a finding isn’t new. It goes back to the early days of COVID-19 research. Back on May 5, 2020, the BMJ published in the medical journal Archives of Disease in Childhood findings by British medical faculty and clinical researchers Alasdair P.S. Munro and Saul N. Faust that children are not super-spreaders of COVID-19. Noting that “severe COVID-19 is as rare as many other serious infection syndromes in children that do not cause schools to be closed,” Munro and Faust urged back then that “Governments worldwide should allow all children back to school regardless of comorbidities.”

The fact that schools worldwide, including North Carolina, could reopen safely without witnessing a surge in cases or becoming viral hotspots was still obvious last fall as well. Struggling parents trying desperately to keep their students from academic decline have been right about the science and data all along, while the governor has used “science and data” as mere incantation.

The timing of Cooper’s announcement and his previous actions during the past year are more than enough to wonder if his decisions have been based merely on an ad-hoc justification driven by politics. Nevertheless, if “new research done right here in North Carolina” is to be what it takes to wake Cooper up to the net negative effects of his extreme orders, then fine.

Even as Cooper has continued to ignore research on the long-term severe health consequences from lockdowns, let’s hope he will take to heart new research from professors at Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard Medical School. They warn that the death toll from the economic impact of lockdowns and other government COVID containment measures could far exceed that of the virus itself over the next 15 to 20 years — estimating 890,000 to 1.37 million additional deaths in the US. Also, these results will disproportionately affect African-Americans and women in the short term. They could also be conservative estimates.

In their National Bureau of Economic Research working paper published in December 2020, Duke associate professor of economics Francesco Bianchi, physician and Harvard Medical School instructor Giada Bianchi, and Johns Hopkins Carey Business School assistant professor of finance Dongho Song write:

We estimate the size of the COVID-19-related unemployment to be between 2 and 5 times larger than the typical unemployment shock, depending on race/gender, resulting in a 3.0% increase in mortality rate and a 0.5% drop in life expectancy over the next 15 years for the overall American population. We also predict that the shock will disproportionately affect African-Americans and women, over a short horizon, while white men might suffer large consequences over longer horizons. These figures translate in a staggering 0.89 million additional deaths over the next 15 years.

Bianchi et al. explain that there’s not just a “short-run trade-off between economic activity and the containment of a pandemic.” There is also “an equally important long-run trade-off,” and it’s something policymakers should also be very attentive to. They write:

Overall, our results indicate that, based on the historical evidence, the COVID-19 pandemic might have long-lasting consequences on human health through its impact on economic activity. We interpret these results as a strong indication that policymakers should take into consideration the severe, long-run implications of such a large economic recession on people’s lives when deliberating on COVID-19 recovery and containment measures. Without any doubt, lockdowns save lives, but they also contribute to the decline in real activity that can have severe consequences on health.

Bianchi et al. acknowledge that the “severe macroeconomic contraction” during the COVID-19 pandemic can be partly explained by people voluntarily choosing to reduce their consumption of entertainment and dining out. Nevertheless, they write, “On top of this, lockdowns have also contributed to further reduce economic activity.” While lockdowns might arguably save lives, Bianchi et al. write, “the severe economic contraction due to the pandemic itself and the measures used to contain it might have long-term consequences on life-expectancy and death rates.”

They project “significant changes in mortality rates and life expectancy” from this economic distress, with excess deaths disproportionately affecting African-Americans.

Worse, they recognize that their findings might be a conservative projection given that “the pandemic has led many workers, especially women, to exit the labor force, with the result that the measured unemployment might underestimate the real dimension of the shock to the labor market.” They later point out other sobering considerations, that

based on emerging data, it is likely that the limited access to health care during the lockdown, temporary discontinuation of preventive care interventions, massive loss of employer-provided health insurance coverage, and the lingering concern of the population about seeking medical care out to fear of contracting COVID-19 will impact mortality rate and life expectancy even more severely.

What are their projections? Here are Bianchi et al.’s estimated increases in excess deaths owing to the profound economic distress exacerbated by government COVID-19 lockdowns and other containment interventions in the next 15 to 20 years:

For the overall population, the increase in the death rate following the COVID-19 pandemic implies a staggering 0.89 and 1.37 million excess deaths over the next 15 and 20 years, respectively. For African-Americans, we estimate 180 thousand and 270 thousand excess deaths over the next 15 and 20 years, respectively. For White, we estimate 0.82 and 1.21 million excess deaths over the next 15 and 20 years, respectively. These numbers are roughly equally split between men and women. These numbers indicate that the consequences of the pandemic might go well beyond the deaths directly caused by the disease.

In conclusion, they write,

Based on our findings, large, sustained and swift government maneuvers to support the currently unemployed labor force and to abate unemployment will be as equally important as the massive efforts focused on limiting and eventually eradicating transmission of SARS-CoV-2 with effective vaccination strategies that are finally into place.

Bianchi et al.’s conclusion amplifies Locke researchers’ call for bold actions to free North Carolinians from government obstacles blocking new employment opportunities and faster job growth, standing in the way of greater health care options, hindering the fiscal health of families and businesses, and slowing educational innovation and improvement.

In our policy prescriptions for a Carolina Rebound, we wrote that in the post-COVID economy, the costs and risks of government-as-usual will be “intolerable impediments to getting people back to work and back to providing for their families as quickly as possible and as best they can.” We called on policymakers to “help people recapture their lives and renew their livelihoods,” which means a zero-tolerance approach to red tape, tax increases, spending beyond means, bureaucracies squelching choice and innovation, special-interest carve-outs, and other examples of choosing politics and well-connected insiders over the people.

“Treat these with the concern given to matters of life or death,” we wrote. “For some of us, it might well be.”

Jon Sanders is an economist studying state regulations, that spreading kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies and research editor at the John Locke Foundation, Jon gets in the weeds of all kinds of policy… ...

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