Our First Lockdown Experiment Failed. Let’s Not Try a Second One.

           Shutting down businesses and schools felt to many people like a natural response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the extended coronavirus lockdown of 2020 did not follow any widely-accepted standard strategy; lockdowns were sporadic and short-lived during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the most recent historical parallel. Encouraging and coercing tens of millions of people to shelter in place in 2020 was one of the most radical social engineering experiments in modern history, as novel as the coronavirus itself.

            The political impulse to cancel events and close nonessential services we experienced during the spring and summer of 2020 is reemerging as the highly contagious, albeit anecdotally less severe, omicron variant sweeps through New York City and other hotspots. Broadway theaters, rock and hip-hop performers have canceled performances, the Rockettes closed their season a week early and Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering curtailing attendance at the city’s annual ball drop at Times Square. Rumors that New York City is considering another public-school system lockdown are sparking panic among parents.

Harvard has moved back to remote learning. The World Economic Forum in Davos has been canceled. Quebec is under lockdown, joining the Netherlands. The United Kingdom is considering one.

So, clearly, is the Biden Administration. The feds can’t order lockdowns. But they can pressure states and cities to enact them.

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci says he doesn’t “foresee” another national lockdown in the United States—yet. Students of political messaging will take note of the careful if-then conditional sentence structure in Fauci’s statement on ABC’s “This Week”: “I don’t see that in the future if we do the things that we’re talking about,” Fauci said. “The thing that continues to be very troublesome to me and my public health colleagues is the fact that we still have 50 million people in the country who are eligible to be vaccinated who are not vaccinated.” What are the odds that vaccine resisters will change their minds in the next week or two?

Americans should consider, as we stare down the barrel of a second wave of “slow the spread”-motivated societal freezes, the pros and cons of the first one last year. Spoiler alert: this is not a movie that deserves a sequel.

Co-conceived in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security and the World Health Organization, the Pandemic Influenza Plan developed to “prevent, control, and respond to…novel influenza A viruses of animal (e.g. from birds or pigs) with pandemic potential,” according to the Centers for Disease Control, was the blueprint for the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza deployed by the Trump and Biden administrations 15 years later to coordinate “all levels of government on the range of options for infection-control and containment, including those circumstances where social distancing measures, limitations on gatherings, or quarantine authority may be an appropriate public health intervention.” Federal officials turned to this Bush-era guidebook when COVID-19 came to America.

            It pains this leftist to admit it, but conservatives who warned of the economic and psychological costs of the 2020 lockdown turned out to have been correct. “Lockdowns do not prevent infection in the future. They just don’t. It comes back many times, it comes back,” President Donald Trump said in April 2020, shortly before much of the country succumbed to lockdown fever. He looks prescient.

With the delta and omicron variants still raging, cost-benefit analysis of the COVID lockdown requires hard data that won’t be available for years. But one thing is clear: the lockdown experiment was far short of an unqualified success.

The economic cost has been staggering. “COVID-19–related job losses wiped out 113 straight months of job growth, with total nonfarm employment falling by 20.5 million jobs in April [2020],” according to a study by the Brookings Institute. 200,000 businesses more than average failed. Harvard economists David Cutler and Lawrence Summers have estimated the total cost of the crisis, much of which is attributable to the lockdown, at $16 trillion if the pandemic were to end this fall—i.e., now.

2020-21 was the Great Lost Year of American public education. With Black students five months behind where they would have been otherwise and whites two months back, virtual instruction was virtually educational.

But what about the benefit? Some studies claimed that lockdowns prevented nearly 5 million cases in the United States; at a mortality rate of 1.6% that works out to 80,000 fewer coronavirus fatalities thanks to the lockdown. But analyses of “excess deaths” indicate that at least 300,000 Americans more than usual died last year due to causes other than the virus itself. Increased alcohol consumption, reduced physical activity and depression culminating in suicide (not last year, when fewer people killed themselves, but in future years) will claim lives years into the future. If the lives-saved column of the ledger comes out a net positive, it probably won’t be by much.

            As for ordinary Americans, we are voting with our feet: 72% of respondents to a December 14th Ipsos poll said they plan to see family or friends outside of their household over the holidays.

This country can’t handle more lockdowns.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


  • alex_the_tired
    December 22, 2021 9:30 AM

    The most significant event to come out of Covid-19 and the Lockdowns (bandname!) is the complete reordering of the workplace and the massive benefit to the average schlub of being relieved of an economically and emotionally difficult daily commute. My commute is 11 seconds now. I make lunch at home. Whether I actually whip up something “real” like scrambled eggs and toast or just boil up some pasta or just open a few cans and dig in, I’m spending a fraction of what I used to for the fare from the nearest chain bistro. I don’t have to cram myself into a little metal box at rush hour to race to an office. The rearrangement of money due to my not taking the subway anywhere near as often and not having to spend something like an hour’s worth of take-home pay on soup and a sandwich because I’m too worn out after a day in my cubicle to assemble lunch ahead of time is basically the only “raise” I’ve gotten in years.
    I wonder how long it will take for my fellow drones to cave in to business “demands” that we all reassemble in the belly of the galley, I mean, return to the office.

  • Ted,

    You hit a very important point – being a leftist isn’t deciding what you think fits the bill, and running with it. It means trying to figure out what is best for the working class. All these “leftists” decided lockdowns were progressive, but they aren’t. Taking care of the working class is progressive, let the unions work out what will protect their workers (not that there are any unions left in this country).

    Alex, yeah ,it is kind of a revelation – there is seriously no reason for most office workers to share a space. Honestly hasn’t been since the phone was invented. My wife works for a fine are services company, the people on the trucks have to go in, but she’s in the office (satellite office, 3 of them) and they’re never going back. That said, some things which can be done remotely really are better in person, I’m a college professor, and while I can and did teach online, it’s better in person.

  • Re: ” … Lawrence Summers … estimated the total cost of the crisis, much of which is attributable to the lockdown, at $16 trillion if the pandemic were to end this fall—i.e., now.”

    OMG, Lawrwnce Summers My Christmas present is to NOT submit my entire rant on the unmitigated scum, Summers, as hardly a noted figure to validate, much less infer is in any way concerned with the average American.

    Just for perspective, Lawrence Summers, according to wiki: ” While working for the Clinton administration, Summers … was also influential … in the deregulation of the U.S financial system, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. ”

    Those not familiar with the profound negative effects of the turn-of-the-century “deregulation of the U.S financial system, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act” are urged to familiarize themselves with the issue.

    Merry Christmas !!! May the New Year bring successful searches for credible sources to support points on issues of economics. (Hint: Michael Hudson, Richard G. Wolff, Jack Rasmus, Jeffrey Sachs … none of whose economic toe nail clippings Summers is worthy to dispose.)

  • I think one of the most difficult results of climate change will be the loss of jobs. Almost every sector of the economy will take a hit. Millions will migrate to more livable areas but will not find work. In a sense, the “lockdown” may be a preview.
    Looked at another way, our insatiable efforts to increase the GDP are a huge part of our problem. We are destroying ever more of our natural resources and increasing green house gases as we go. That has to change. $16 trillion missing; does it really matter? Good riddance? Alex demonstrates the decline of the consumer economy.
    Population probably has to decline. Unlike other species, we don’t have a natural predator–other than ourselves (war) and disease. It may be that both of those will become more prevalent.
    I am trying to understand the current and forthcoming changes.

  • alex_the_tired
    December 28, 2021 5:25 PM

    Just as a clarification. I would LOVE to be able to go out to eat every lunch and keep all those workers employed. But the reality is that the consumer economy depends upon discretionary income and despite all the rosy reportage, for the most part, everyone’s hanging on by a thread. Or should I say, a rubber band. Because a lot of people’s finances are just about to snap, and when they do, watch your eyes.
    Pretty much every time I went out for the sandwich and soup, maybe a coffee, I was spending money I needed for bills, rent, groceries. It was like self-medicating. Work was so demoralizing, and so pointless, with no sign of ever improving significantly enough, that it was the only thing I could do besides go crazy.
    Rent, credit card payments, and student loan debt were all either suspended or modified during the epidemic. So, your rent was $900 a month? Well, for the next year or so, it’s going to be $1,800 because you have to start catching up on that back rent AND keep current. Your credit cards? Oh, heaven help you. Student loans? When you can’t pay those, they’ll garnish your wages. Then your landlord will evict you and your credit cards will shut you off.
    I genuinely think people have no idea exactly how bad it’s going to become. Because the loss of worker population is going to cripple a lot of businesses that depended on those people and their demoralized self-medicating purchases. And, even worse, now that some people have seen exactly how bad it was, they’ll actually start to resist. They WON’T go back to the bistros and coffee shops. Because they’ve seen exactly how awful it all really is.

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