Lockdowns Don’t Prevent Coronavirus Spread

Lockdowns Don’t Prevent Coronavirus Spread by Joakim Book for American Institute for Economic Research

Much has been said about the terrifying models that in the spring projected such a staggering number of deaths from the novel coronavirus.

In hindsight, as bad as the pandemic has been, it never even approached the dismal numbers suggested ‒ the very numbers that rationalized society-wide lockdowns in Italy, the U.K., New York City, and then in many other places as the pandemic spread.

What researchers have struggled with since then is how to measure the impact of various actions taken. Do we even know if what we’re doing is working? Where’s the evidence for that, and are there other things we ought to do instead?

Naturally, proponents of lockdowns have long said that strong government action prevented all kinds of horrors. If anything, the poor outcomes we had in the spring and the fall indicated that we didn’t do enough. Skeptics, on the other hand, said that lockdowns did nothing but harm our societies ‒ physically, economically, and mentally ‒ and that infection rate curves moved the way they did regardless of what strong-worded politicians implemented, and often before their strong policies took effect. The August NBER paper by Andrew Atkeson, Karen Kopecky and Tao Zha, ‘Four Stylized Facts about COVID-19’ spells out the uncomfortable position for most policy-makers: the virus seems to spread rapidly, kill selectively, and in no way responds to anything that well-meaning politicians have thrown at it.

The general corona debate quickly became a battle of pointing to this or that country: Lockdowners picked Australia and New Zealand; skeptics picked Sweden and Taiwan. The angry feuds in political arenas and editorial pages were off to the races. Death rates in Sweden far outstripped those of its neighboring countries, a topic on which we already in August tried to bring some clarity. To an American and British audience who couldn’t tell Bergen from Ystad, or slurred Danish from Finnish diphthongs, higher death rates and weaker restrictions were conclusive evidence that Sweden’s slightly-more-open strategy had failed. Never mind that the Nordic countries may differ in other respects. One-variable statistical analysis at its worst while practically no one compared Sweden to the much worse-performing UK, Belgium or France.

Maybe countries greatly differed from one another in ways that would make such naive comparisons completely misleading: demographics, population densities, the size of the Covid-shock, the effect of government advice, the soft cultural values of how real people interact and how they responded to the pandemic. Besides, all these countries introduced so many new policies and behavioral changes that even those of us who tried to make sense of them quickly lost track.

What we needed was an experiment, where all of those background differences were controlled for. Ideally, a jurisdiction with similar conditions operating on similar rules; where some of their areas locked down hard, while their neighboring counties, identical in every other way, did not. In a new article, one of us together with another co-author, did exactly that. The article, “Lockdown Effects on Sars-CoV-2 Transmission – The evidence from Northern Jutland,” by Kasper Planeta Kepp and Christian Bjørnskov is now available on MedRxiv.

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