The idea that a second lockdown, more severe than the first and on a national basis, would not cause more damage than it prevents is sheer fantasy. COVID poses health risks to a particular portion of the population. Lockdowns pose a risk to everybody—both economically and physically.
This thought comes to mind as I read an opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota, and Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. These two “experts” are arguing that what our country needs is another lockdown. This time, however, they want what seems to be a nationalized lockdown in which officials “mandate sheltering in place for everyone but the truly essential workers. By that, we mean people must stay at home and leave only for essential reasons: food shopping and visits to doctors and pharmacies while wearing masks and washing hands frequently.” You see, they say that only 39% of American workers are truly “essential” while previous lockdowns allowed 78% of workers to keep going. If we can just put 60% of workers out of jobs and have the government pay them to stay home, then things will all be well.
Does this sound reasonable to you?
Dr. Osterholm and Mr. Kashkari are under the illusion that we have somehow “failed” in America because we have recorded more than 160,000 deaths from the virus. Anybody who has followed the story of this virus and how we have treated it knows that our standards for marking “COVID deaths” has been remarkably loose. Almost anybody who died with the virus is eligible to be labeled a COVID death. A CBS affiliate in Florida discovered last month that people dying of gunshot wounds to the head, falls, and even a motorcycle crash were being labeled as COVID deaths. While some of these deaths have been removed from state statistics, the reality is that there are still very few people without severe pre-existing conditions dying of COVID. But even with such loose standards, the median age for such supposed deaths is at or above the median age for deaths in the United States. There are still fewer than 300 deaths attributed to COVID for those under 24—and just a bit over 12,000 for those under 54 according to the CDC.
What we now know is exactly what we have known from the beginning. There is virtually no risk of death for those under the age of 24 from COVID and a tiny risk for those under 54. This is a virus which attacks the sick and the old who are likely to have sicknesses. And yet our two “experts” want us to lock down our economy even more extensively than before so that we can reduce our number of cases per 100,000 people to one from the supposedly disastrous 17 that we currently suffer. At that rate, they believe, we can do severe contact tracing and thus isolate anybody who has the disease.
Did lockdowns work before?
The problem is that they didn’t. In May Elaine He of Bloomberg looked at the European countries, which had mostly passed their first wave of COVID. What she found was that “the relative strictness of a country’s containment measures had little bearing” on the severity of a country’s deaths from COVID. What was true of Europe was also true here. The most severe lockdowns were in states such as New York and New Jersey, which both lead the nation in coronavirus deaths. States that had a lighter touch but which have populations that are fairly large—and indeed fairly old—such as Texas, Georgia, and Arizona had and have only a fraction of the deaths that New York and New Jersey suffered. Dr. Osterholm and Mr. Kashkari seem blithely unaware that such lockdowns do not correlate with death rates. Nor do they acknowledge that the lockdowns, as loose as they were, had and are having drastic and very bad results for people in our country and around the world.
For one thing, they created the conditions for a great many more deaths than usual in the age ranges of those who had little risk of death from the virus. Dr. Mike deBoisblanc of John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, California, told reporters that suicide had vastly increased. “We’ve never seen numbers like this, in such a short period of time,” he said. “I mean we’ve seen a year’s worth of suicide attempts in the last four weeks.” Two months later, in a webinar for the Buck Institute, CDC Director Robert Redfield told listeners that when it came to high school students, “We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above excess that we had as background than we are seeing the deaths from COVID.”
The Washington Post, one of the cheerleaders of shutdowns, reported in July that suspected overdoses jumped nationally by 18% in March, 29% in April, and 42% in May of this year. The Post noted that the reasons for the spike include not only the joblessness and isolation that were created but also the fact that “many treatment centers, drug courts and recovery programs have been forced to close or significantly scale back during shutdowns. With plunging revenue for services and little financial relief from the government, some now teeter on the brink of financial collapse.” Economist Charles Steele has suggested the excess deaths this year due to suicide and overdose could be over 70,000.
If you’ve been following the bouncing ball, the shutdowns created joblessness and isolation that served to spur many to turn to drugs or suicide. The shutdowns also forced the closure of many of the government and non-government avenues of help for people in trouble. And the shutdowns caused a massive decline in revenue for these services, possibly causing them to close permanently.
It is not just mental health leading to destructive behavior, however. The decline in cancer screenings has led scholars looking at the data to estimate over 10,000 excess deaths from breast and colorectal cancer over the next few years. Dr. Norman Sharpless, Director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, notes that such estimates are a) conservative, b) predicated on only two kinds of cancers that constitute about one sixth of cancer cases, c) do not take into account the delays in treatment of already existing cases, and d) estimate that all care will go back to normal within the next six months. He notes further that it is not just the delay of cancer care but also the pause in cancer research that are likely to halt progress on treating cancers. What was true of cancer was also true of heart disease. The states that suffered the most from COVID—which, ahem, also happened to be some of the most severe lockdown states—also suffered a great many more “ordinary” deaths.
Deaths from chronic, non-emergent conditions also increased as patients put off maintenance visits and their medical conditions deteriorated. In the second study of excess deaths, the five states with the most COVID-19 deaths from March through April (Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania), experienced large proportional increases in deaths from non-respiratory underlying causes, including diabetes (96 percent), heart diseases (89 percent), Alzheimer’s disease (64 percent), and cerebrovascular diseases (35 percent). New York City—the nation’s COVID-19 epicenter during that period—experienced the largest increases in non-respiratory deaths, notably from heart disease (398 percent) and diabetes (356 percent).
It is not just the cancer and the other diseases that afflict the old just as much as COVID, however. Dr. Redfield also noted in his webinar appearance that 85% of American kids younger than five are now behind on their pediatric vaccinations. What will be the cost of this delay? And will not a complete shutdown cause even more delays in such preventive medicine?
Dr. Osterholm and Mr. Kashkari believe that we can now have a complete shutdown in which we can carry on medical care at the same time. This seems, at best, very unlikely.
Of course, our “experts” don’t mention the question of hunger, either—surely a problem that will be exacerbated if we go into shutdown again. NBC News reported in July on the massive increases in hunger in America that are due both to the lack of money and the disruption of the food supply in America. And while America may have food insecurity problems, the shutdowns and the corresponding food supply issues have already reverberated throughout the world. The Associated Press reported, based on a study in the Lancet, that there was an excess of around 10,000 childhood deaths per month happening around the world in the first six months of 2020 due to the shutdowns. They estimate a further 550,000 children per month suffering from wasting—that’s that condition of malnourishment in which the legs become very spindly and the stomach is distended. The effects on physical and mental health are and will continue to be staggering. They come not only from the lockdowns in effect there, but also the shock to the supply chains and to international aid.
The same goes for international healthcare. Dr. Redfield notes that “if you go to Africa where our polio eradication program and our measles vaccine programs have really come to a halt because of COVID concerns and field workers are not out there. I now have 120 million children in Sub Saharan Africa that haven’t received the measles vaccine. And they’re very at risk to die from measles. And they’re very limited risk from dying from COVID.” Note that it’s “our” program. The effect of American programs being shuttered in the name of American “safety” is that other people waste away and die. No doubt the same connections are relevant to the increases in global malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV—which are likely to result in millions more deaths this year.
Lockdowns did not help us locally nor did they benefit global health. As of this point, there are approximately 750,000 worldwide deaths attributed to COVID—mostly weighted at older ages. We’re going to engage in another lockdown that will put additional pressure on hundreds of millions of young lives in order to get to the magical number of one case per hundred thousand people in the U.S.
Our experts paint this as a matter of controlling the virus in order to rebuild the economy. While there is no doubt that businesses slowed and many would have been put into danger, even had we not locked down in many states, the attempt to pin the economic damage on the virus rather than the shutdowns does not work. It is not the fault of the virus that nearly half of all black-owned businesses in the U.S. and about 100,000 businesses in total have been wiped out. It is the fault of policymakers. While one can gripe about the fact that Congressional attempts at shoring up small businesses were not effective in many cases, the reality is that far fewer businesses would have been in danger if they had not been forced to close for months at a time by state-level policy makers.
Dr. Osterholm and Mr. Kashkari suggest that Congress simply shell out more money to pay people to not work for another six weeks. They suggest by a slight-of-hand rhetorical move that because those who kept their jobs during the pandemic were able to save more money that the government as a whole has saved money. Thus, there are no financial consequences to a large national payment for 60% of the population to stay home for six weeks. Here’s an alternative. Don’t shut down businesses and we won’t have to pay people to stay home.
Dr. Osterholm and Mr. Kashkari’s idea that a second lockdown—more severe than the first and on a national basis—would not cause more damage than it prevented is sheer fantasy. The lockdowns endured in many states, “loose” as they were, had severe repercussions on the economy and public health. Economic effects inevitably cause public health effects. As Dr. Redfield observed, with much greater understanding, the questions involved are really not about health versus the economy. They are about health versus health and they always have been.
COVID poses health risks to a particular portion of the population. Lockdowns pose a risk to everybody. Experts should understand this.
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 See Michael T. Osterholm and Neel Kashkari, “Osterholm, Kashkari: The U.S. needs another stint of staying at home,” StarTribune (August 2020). This essay originally appeared in The New York Times.
 Danielle Waugh, “I-Team: Deaths incorrectly attributed to COVID-19 in Palm Beach County” (July 2020).
 See here.
 Elaine He, “The Results of Europe’s Lockdown Experiment Are In,” Bloomberg (May 2020).
 Amy Hollyfield, “Suicides on the rise amid stay-at-home order, Bay Area medical professionals say” (May 2020).
 See here.
 William Wan and Heather Long, “‘Cries for help’: Drug overdoses are soaring during the coronavirus pandemic,” The Washington Post (July 2020).
 Michael Austin, “Study: 111,000 Children Will Starve to Death Because of Economic Shutdowns,” The Western Journal (July 2020).
 Norman E. Sharpless, “COVID-19 and cancer,” Science Magazine (June 2020).
 See here.
 Martha C. White, “Millions of Americans going hungry as pandemic erodes incomes and destroys communities,” NBC News (July 2020).
 Lori Hinnant and Sam Mednick, “Virus-linked hunger tied to 10,000 child deaths each month,” AP News (July 2020).
 Apoorva Mandavilli, “‘The biggest monster’ is spreading. And it’s not the coronavirus,” Chicago Tribune (August 2020).
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.