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Flattening the curve or flattening the global poor? How Covid lockdowns obliterate human rights and crush the most vulnerable

Marketed as life-saving public health measures, lockdowns triggered death and economic devastation on a global scale while doing little to slow the spread of Covid-19. Now, they’re back with a vengeance.
 
by Stavroula Pabst and Max Blumenthal
 
Part 6 - Unpacking the misconception lockdowns work against COVID-19
 
Many credited lockdowns in China, Greece, Vietnam, and Australia with early COVID successes, contributing to a widespread perception that lockdowns are vital to saving lives, and, therefore, a compassionate choice. Such reasoning has led governments internationally to proceed with lengthy closures of daily life.

According to Dr. Bhattacharya, these policies might be appropriate to halt the spread of a given virus depending on its profile and status. “There are diseases that are incredibly deadly, but not particularly infectious, where quarantining and sharp lockdowns locally can be quite effective,” Bhattacharya explained. “For instance, we limited the Ebola [virus] outbreaks in this way.” 

Could COVID-19 have been addressed through sharp interventions as Ebola was? The answer depends in part on the properties of the virus, such as how deadly it is and how and how easily it spreads. Oftentimes, more lethal diseases spread less easily than their weaker counterparts, and that’s because the host will either die or know what they have and isolate themselves accordingly, thus halting transmission. Despite significantly higher fatality rates (25-90%, depending on the outbreak) in relation to COVID-19, Ebola is less infectious than other diseases and does not spread through the air: in fact, it typically dies within thirty seconds outside bodily fluids. 

In contrast, COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that likely spreads through aerosol transmission. Echoing the now-discredited modelling from the Imperial College of London, media coverage from early 2020 made the coronavirus appear more deadly than it turned out to be, with some reports suggesting the fatality rate could rise to as high as seven percent. In reality, the coronavirus is a less lethal disease that spreads easily, making it harder to contain with human interventions.

Because COVID-19 is a seasonal virus that tends to flourish in winter, much like the flu, early COVID “victors” like New Zealand and Australia were fortunate to get hit with it during their respective summers. They also are geographically isolated. The rest of the world was not so lucky.  

Drawing on studies of virus prevalence in California urban areas in March 2020, for example, Bhattacharya concluded it was “too late” for the coronavirus measures that state officials issued to help eliminate the virus, with about 3-4% of survey respondents reporting they already had COVID-19 antibodies.

Such numbers suggest that the virus was present much earlier in many parts of the world than originally believed, rendering subsequent preventive pandemic measures futile in eliminating or slowing the virus despite their stringency. In other words, based on the nature of its spread and its widespread establishment in many communities, the virus had already taken root in an irreversible way.

You don’t get up to 2 to 4 percent disease spread [of COVID-19] unless you’ve had it spreading for a while,” Bhattacharya said in reference to the California seroprevalence study. “That means 96 percent of the population [at the time was] still susceptible to the virus, and far from endemic. But way too far gone to actually have hope that any lockdowns will stop the disease.”

Despite the tendency to resort to them when cases rise, the evidence of lockdowns’ effectiveness in inhibiting the spread of coronavirus is threadbare.
 
Peru, which boasts the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate despite imposing hard lockdowns, was a case in point. Meanwhile, Greece locked down in November 2020 at around 2,500-3,000 cases daily, only to open again for tourism six months later with similar case numbers. Then there was Belarus, a country of over 9 million which did not lock down or introduce a mask mandate, and boasted one of Europe’s lowest COVID death rates all the way up to the Delta surge in Eastern Europe.

The International Monetary Fund, or IMF, reportedly offered Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko $940 million in COVID assistance on the condition that he imposed harsh pandemic restrictions. Lukashenko said he refused, proclaiming, “the IMF continues to demand from us quarantine measures, isolation, and a curfew. This is nonsense. We will not dance to anyone’s tune.” 

By June 2021, only a minority of Belarusian citizens told pollsters they favored more COVID-19 restrictions.

Despite their widespread utilization as a non-pharmaceutical intervention against COVID-19, the shaky evidence for lockdowns does not end with anecdotes and country-specific strategies: dozens of academic and scientific studies call into question their efficacy or otherwise argue that the social, economic, and health related harms they pose significantly outweigh the risks. Their conclusions include the following (thread compiled by twitter user @the_brumby):

In Did Lockdown Work? An Economist’s Cross-Country Comparison, Aarhus University Economics Professor Christian Bjørnskov writes that after “[u]sing two indices from the Blavatnik Centre’s Covid 19 policy measures and comparing weekly mortality rates from 24 European countries in the first halves of 2017-2020, and addressing policy endogeneity in two different ways, I find no clear association between lockdown policies and mortality development.”
 
In Assessing mandatory stay-at-home and business closure effects on the spread of COVID-19, Eran Bendavid, Christopher Oh, Jay Bhattacharya, and John P. A. Ioannidis, a team of Stanford University academics and research data scientists, conclude that “there is no evidence that more restrictive nonpharmaceutical interventions (“lockdowns”) contributed substantially to bending the curve of new cases in England, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, or the United States in early 2020.” 

Medical researchers and doctors Rabail Chaudhry, MD, Justyna Bartoszko, MD and Sheila Riazi, MD (University of Toronto Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine), George Dranitsaris, MD (University of Ioannina Department of Hematology) and Talha Mubashir, MD (previously University of Toronto Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, now at the University of Texas McGovern Medical School Department of Anesthesiology) write in A country level analysis measuring the impact of government actions, country preparedness and socioeconomic factors on COVID-19 mortality and related health outcomes that “government actions such as border closures, full lockdowns, and a high rate of COVID-19 testing were not associated with statistically significant reductions in the number of critical cases or overall mortality.”

In Stay-at-home policy is a case of exception fallacy: an internet-based ecological study, academics and researchers at Brazil-based institutions, including the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, R. F. Savaris, G. Pumi, J. Dalzochio & R. Kunst address early data favoring lockdowns and stay-at-home policies through an analysis of mathematical models and data from 87 regions worldwide. In “yielding 3,741 pairwise comparisons for linear regression analysis…[they] were not able to explain if COVID-19 mortality is reduced by staying at home in ~ 98% of the comparisons.”

In Covid-19 Mortality: A Matter of Vulnerability Among Nations Facing Limited Margins of Adaptation, French medical researchers Quentin De Larochelambert, Andy Marc, Juliana Antero, Eric Le Bourg and University of Paris Professor of Physiology Jean-François Toussaint write that the “[s]tringency of the measures settled to fight pandemia, including lockdown, did not appear to be linked with death rate.” Instead, they conclude that nations with stagnating life expectancies and high rates of income and non-communicable disease —in other words, existing characteristics of a nation’s demographics— faced higher mortality rates regardless of government interventions.

And in Government mandated lockdowns do not reduce Covid-19 deaths: implications for evaluating the stringent New Zealand response, University of Waikato Economics Professor John Gibson concludes that “Lockdowns do not reduce Covid-19 deaths…[t]he apparent ineffectiveness of lockdowns suggests that New Zealand suffered large economic costs for little benefit in terms of lives saved.”
 
These dozens of studies are consistent with pre-COVID-19 pandemic literature emphasizing the ineffectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions like lockdowns.

Almost all [pre-pandemic planning guides before the coronavirus] emphasized respect for civil rights, disrupting societies as little as possible, protecting the vulnerable, and not spreading panic,” said Dr. Bhattacharya. “The lockdowns and the media narrative and the public health narrative of March 2020 violated all those principles.

In a 2006 paper, Disease Mitigation Measures in the Control of Pandemic Influenza, academics at the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (now known as the John Hopkins Center for Health Security) in Baltimore, Maryland, wrote: “Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted.

Documents as recent as the 2019 World Health Organization (WHO) guide, Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza, furthermore, state that the “evidence base on the effectiveness of [Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions] in community settings is limited, and the overall quality of evidence was very low for most interventions.

While already-existing pandemic literature naturally could not make COVID-19 specific recommendations, a well-established understanding of the general ineffectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions for respiratory viruses largely went unheeded as media and government-driven fear gripped the population in early 2020. Everyday people paid and continue to pay the price.

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