In January of 2020, revelations about COVID-19 began gaining widespread attention. At the time, the virus was little known to public health officials and consequently, much of their guidance on its transmission, mortality rates and prevention had a seat-of-the-pants quality about it. Soon we were being instructed to use hand sanitizer, not touch anything that could possibly host pathogens, cover the nose and mouth, keep at least six feet away from others, keep kids out of school and everyone out of church, limit family gatherings, shut down much of the economy except for “essential” services (elusive term!), etc.
We were told that all that would likely be in effect for “two weeks to flatten the curve.”
Two years later, we know better. I don’t fault public health officials for, at the outset, getting some things wrong. After all, they had limited information and, understandably, emphasized the potential health problems posed by the bug. That’s what public health officials are paid to do.
But, while the virus is a medical problem, our response to it by governmental officials (lockdowns, school closures, shuttering businesses, etc.) made it something vastly different. To illness and the possibility of death were added a wide range of deleterious effects including increased mental illness, decreased use of preventive care, children not learning and separated from their peers, a spike in unemployment and a drop in the nation’s GDP, i.e., issues that non-medical officials are supposed to concern themselves with.
The blow to the economy begat ill-thought-out stimulus payments by the federal government that, with the attendant drop in tax revenues, meant a spike in the federal deficit and debt. That in turn produced, to a great degree, the record-breaking inflation we have now. So many good intentions, so little thought for the consequences. For almost two years, decision-makers largely ignored the non-medical side effects of their COVID policies.
Now we’re coming to know just how misguided much of that policy-making was. If lockdowns and school closures truly had a major impact on the mortality of COVID, then perhaps we could now conclude that, whatever their negative consequences, they were worth it. But, if a comprehensive new study is any indication, we can’t.
Our federalist system in which states reserve the power to make policy about a wide range of issues means that the U.S. represents an excellent source of data for comparison. We know how the various states and the District of Columbia approached the pandemic. Comparing their policies and outcomes tells us a lot.
Here are the three major conclusions of the study:
- Locked-down economies did not have better health. “[T]here is no apparent relationship between reduced economic activity during the pandemic and our composite mortality measure.”
- States with high rates of open schools did not suffer increased poor health effects from doing so. There is a very minimal correlation between school openings and slight increases in mortality, but the authors conclude there’s no causal relation.
- “Unsurprisingly, there was a strong relationship between the states that had poor economic performance and closed schools – the lockdown states.”
That’s nothing but the obvious. Closed states had closed schools.
The study examined three aspects of our response to the pandemic – mortality, the economy and schools. The authors corrected for medical issues like obesity, diabetes and age in comparing states’ mortality rates, so, for example, states with relatively old populations, like Florida, could accurately be compared to those with young ones, like Utah. Changes in state GDPs were compared and the percentage of schools opened or closed was used to compare states’ educational outcomes.
Three states stand out as having combined scores well above the others: Utah, Nebraska, and Vermont. They were substantially above average in all three categories. Six more states followed, including Montana and South Dakota almost two standard deviations above the average in terms of economy but 0.8 to 1.0 below in terms of mortality (i.e., higher death rates). New Hampshire and Maine were about 1.5 standard deviations above average on mortality while also somewhat above average economically. Although sometimes criticized as having policies that were “too open,” Florida proved to have average mortality while maintaining a high level of economic activity and 96 percent open schools.
Meanwhile, New Jersey performed spectacularly badly, coming in dead last. New York, whose governor, Andrew Cuomo, was lionized by the press for his handling of COVID, barely eked out 50th place out of 51.
This study is more than simply a guide for future policy-making, although it’s certainly that. It’s also a primer on how our political system in many cases failed to self-correct. That lockdowns were not an effective way in which to reduce the mortality rate of the virus was at the very least strongly suggested after about a year, but the information was met with little reflection by authorities and even less change.
That highlights yet another salient feature of our COVID response – the entirely deserved further erosion of public trust in government. Many Americans thought poorly of government before the first person contracted the virus, but many more do now. Overly-restrictive policies, governing by fiat, the assumption of powers nowhere granted, the wild and sometimes contradictory swings in what was considered “known” about the virus and what to do about it, the frank hypocrisy of governmental officials and many outright lies all combined to deliver a body blow to public trust.
As badly as many states handled the pandemic, as tragic as are the number of deaths caused by the virus, in the long term, that may be the most devastating consequence of the past two years.
Or perhaps it’s the good news. If, as seems to be happening, parents are now more likely to seek alternatives to public schools for their children, if voters seek and create alternatives to “the Democrat/GOP duopoly,” if people everywhere create social media fora apart from the Googles, Twitters and Facebooks of the world, perhaps on some bright future day we can recall the COVID pandemic years as the time we made ourselves a freer and more autonomous people.