What proof is there that Covid-19 lockdowns prevent more cases than they cause?

2013-updated_scientific-method-steps_v6_noheaderAs the economic pain from shelter in place orders manifests itself, protests are erupting in many states against what I previously called the absurd proposition of Covid-19 lockdowns. Indeed, as the knock-on effects of these severe disruptions begin to emerge, tensions are going to go much higher.

Supporters of reopening the economy make many arguments, including that the threat of Covid-19 is overstated and that the government “cure” will be worse than the disease. Their opponents smear them as “anti-science,” ignorant rubes. But that begs the question: where is the science supporting the theory these lockdowns have prevented more infections than they caused? I don’t see it; nor do I expect I will.

To be clear, the pro-lockdown crowd, which includes politicians, public health officials, and much of the media, have not necessarily said there will be less cases overall because of the lockdowns. They have said the lockdowns will “flatten the curve,” meaning not as many people will get a severe illness from the virus at the same time. This, they argue, will prevent hospitals being overwhelmed with more cases than there are beds at the peak of the infection cycle.

This is certainly a plausible theory, but that is all it is. One can also construct a plausible theory that the lockdowns have caused more cases during their durations than if they hadn’t been ordered at all or if they only applied to high risk people (elderly, people with underlying conditions, etc.).

How? Well, the CDC says that prolonged exposure to the virus increases one’s chance of contracting it. Therefore, anyone ordered to stay in their homes with people already infected had a much higher chance of being infected than if they or the people they were confined with went to work every day as usual.

We now know the virus was present in at least two people who died as far back as early February, long before the first shelter in place order in any state. We also have strong evidence that far more asymptomatic people have already been infected with the disease than previously thought.

A study by Stanford University concluded there may be as many as 81,000 cases  in that county, with only 1,094 reported. A separate study of 397 residents of a Boston, MA homeless shelter showed a similar result. 146 of the 397 tested positive for the virus. 100% of them were asymptomatic.

The pro-lockdown crowd has interpreted these facts predictably – lockdowns must remain in place because people who don’t even know they have the virus may spread it.

But there is another, glaringly obvious conclusion to be drawn from these studies and the knowledge the virus has been here since at least early February. Lockdowns are forcing uninfected people to have prolonged exposure to infected people.

That’s not to say the lockdowns don’t prevent more infections than they cause. There must be some number of people who have avoided infection by staying in their homes and not going to restaurants, bars, work, etc. But there is just as surely some number of people who became infected because of the lockdowns. Evaluating the lockdown policy depends at least in part upon which of those numbers is larger, as well as the damage done by secondary negative effects of the lockdowns.

Here is the problem. No politician or public health official is interested in that second number. They’ve made their decisions and there is zero incentive for them to have any intellectual curiosity about their validity. On the contrary, they would face public lynching, literally or figuratively, if it turned out their policies not only wrecked the economy but achieved the opposite public health results they intended.

Yet, anyone who believes in science should be demanding rigorous proof that these lockdowns didn’t cause more infections than they prevented while they were in place. And anyone who believes in individual liberty must put the burden of proof on those who would infringe upon it, not on those who merely seek to exercise their inalienable rights.

Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.

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