May 17, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

It’s not a moot point. Worldwide COVID cases are still at near-record highs. Many Asian countries which had previously been doing quite well (e.g. Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand) are experinecing spikes and have to decide what to do now. E.g. Taiwan is currently reporting several hundred cases a day of B.1.1.7 with less than <1% of the population being even partially vaccinated and now has to decide what sorts of restrictions to enact, for how long, and what the goal should be.

Expand full comment
May 17, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

I can agree with Noah on this topic. Australia has practiced severe lock-downs whenever the virus shows up.......and the government has funded the resulting economic pain with an (initially at least) generous wages supplement for idled ("non-essential") workers.

Yet Australia's economy has performed relatively well, suffering only one quarter of negative growth, and now back to c.5.5% unemployment, (from a high of c.10% at the beginning of the pandemic). Needless to say, Australia's vaccination program is progressing at a very leisurely rate.

But note, I'm an MMTer. The whole globe's non-essential economy should have been locked down and managed with IMS and BIS money printing.....I reckon 3 million lives could have been saved (ignoring, for the sake of the argument, the negative effects on some families being cooped-up with one another for an extended period of time..)

Expand full comment
May 17, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

The data on this provides a shockingly clear picture, crazy that this is a bit of a heterodox opinion (both US left and right seem to agree that lockdowns hurt the economy, right just thinks it was bad and the left is naive/decadent for not caring, while left thinks it was good and the right is heartless for being ok with more deaths to preserve the econ).

"In the end, the economy is made up of human beings, and valuing those human beings is pretty much the best thing you can do for your economy".

It's unfortunate that the US left doesn't make arguments in these terms more often when this is clearly the case for not just lockdowns but healthcare, cash relief, green energy etc etc etc. I feel like it would be far more convincing to people on the right/center (the few who would listen, anyway) rather than turn it into a moralizing "I care about people over profits" situation. There's probably an argument you can make that for the left's prestige economy and virtue signaling purposes it is more useful to frame things in this way though.

Expand full comment

The problem with this article - and with lockdowns in general - is that they assume they can control exponential growth. It's been pretty well established that in most cases COVID-19 follows a logistic curve (in terms of cumulative cases and deaths). In order to stop a spike in cases and deaths you need to two things to work out for you. Firstly you need to get the timing of the lockdown correct and - more importantly - the lockdown has to take R below one.

There are some very big issues with this approach. One is that all three lockdowns, COVID *INFECTIONS* (i.e. day 0 of a covid case) have peaked before lockdown measures took place. Professor Simon Wood of the University of Edinburgh has done some excellent work on this (https://www.maths.ed.ac.uk/~swood34/). It appears that we are as good at timing lockdowns as investors are at timing the market.

Secondly and more controversially, lockdowns are not effective in reducing infections. They do not work. If we examine the November lockdown we see that there is only a small decrease in infections after a lockdown is imposed. In the March and January lockdowns, infections were already decreasing in the days before lockdown and the R value was also decreasing prior to lockdown. Lockdowns may increase the rate at which R decreases (dR/dt), but the evidence for this is slim at best. For evidence of all of this, see these two graphs from Simon Wood (https://www.maths.ed.ac.uk/~swood34/epidemic.png). Further evidence for lockdown 3 can be found here: https://thecritic.co.uk/seven-indictors-that-show-infections-were-falling-before-lockdown-3-0/.

On a more local level, we see such proof for this again and again in the failed local lockdowns in Leicester and the north of England (https://unherd.com/thepost/the-leicester-lockdown-was-not-necessary/ and https://unherd.com/thepost/where-is-the-evidence-that-the-tier-three-strategy-works/).

In London, cases were increasing rapidly in certain boroughs towards the end of the November lockdown. While the B117 variant and schools being open may have been factor in this, it further weakens the case for lockdowns.

A collection of 35 papers have also reached similar conclusions: https://www.aier.org/article/lockdowns-do-not-control-the-coronavirus-the-evidence/

Despite all of this evidence against lockdowns, let us assume that they work to some extent. In order to justify them, the government must demonstrate the benefits of the lockdown outweigh the costs. Miles et al examined this and found that "The lowest estimate for lockdown costs incurred was 40% higher than highest benefits from avoiding the worst mortality case scenario at full life expectancy tariff and in more realistic estimations they were over 5 times higher." (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdfdirect/10.1111/ijcp.13674).

It appears that there are only two viable approaches to fighting COVID-19, the first being the zero covid approach used by Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The option is light touch approach of the US (Texas and Florida in particular) and Sweden. Anything in-between is likely to lead to more job losses and non-COVID excess deaths while doing almost nothing to slow down this disease.

Expand full comment

Most of the epidemiological analysis relies on a single Reuters article for 'copious evidence'. There are now about 30 publications from scientists documenting the failures if lockdowns, which are not even dismissed but remain entirely unaddressed. Moreover, comparing Sweden with its neighbours is premature given that the lockdowns are likely to have long-term effects. Though similar pairings, such as Brazil and Peru would draw the opposite conclusions. It's not clear why Sweden is an outlier here, and why if you remove Stockholm, the death rates by area are about the same as its neighbours. One is invariably drawn to Sweden's absurdly lose classification of COVID deaths, which does not require COVID to feature on the death certificate, and if you are hit by a bus but test positive on the slab, you are added to those statistics... Though if I recall, lockdowns were also put in place to stop the overwhelming of the healthcare system, which did not occur in Sweden, rather making the suggestion Sweden's policy is a failure 'a moot point'. Further, this article fails to take into account Quality Adjusted Life Years. Every death of a 30 year old steals more prospective life from a population than the death of a moribund 80 year old. The lockdown in France is estimated to have robbed the population of 10x as many QALY.

The, conjecture, thought experiments, comparison to the Spanish flu are all entirely erroneous. This article is a great example of how data-illiteracy, buffered by bad ideas and a few choice media articles, can be used to justify about anything. The presupposition built upon here (lockdowns preserve life) is in fact supported entirely by another article, written by someone who has probably never read beyond the abstract in their life. Journalists have a notoriously difficult time with scientific articles I have noticed. If 'Yes, lockdowns are good' then this article should be peppered with supporting studies and soothing excerpts. Instead we see a possible 7% reduction in transmission, I do hope it was worth it, given that reducing transmission between those under 50y/o achieves essentially nothing in real-life terms.

For all the economic justification of lockdown, they were meant to protect life. More or less, they failed. There is no correlation between lockdown stringency and deaths per capita, no matter what individual anecdotes may be used to argue otherwise. Given their failure in this, I regard assertions that lockdowns may have saved us all money as ludicrous. I am no economist, so I will bite my tongue on the alleged fiscal concepts here, but I am pretty swift with biology and psychology. The author comes so damned close, but in the end utterly misses that *fear*, stoked by the media and various ideologues, is the main determining factor here, and that lockdowns can in some instances cause a reduction in *fear* (something scientists intentionally cultivated). Much as twisted ankle can be resolved by amputating a leg.

I have always found truth, no matter how unimaginably awful, provides a cold, cutting clarity that is the antithesis of fear. I wish we had focused a little more on truth, as we were in the fortunate position where it was definitely not unimaginably awful.

Expand full comment

While I generally think lockdowns were justified, we will need some time before the entirety of the pros and cons will be tallied. In particular, a large percentage of the low-risk population is only now slowly waddling out of their apartments, significantly fatter and less in shape than one year ago. Many good habits were dropped, and poor ones picked up, and we will inherit a legacy of poor health for years to come. More than a few are coming out psychologically scarred. Many kids lost a year of education. Anecdotally, I see that some young adults have grown cynical about government, and such attitudes might come define their generation. And I fear that the EU might have come through fatally weakened. So, yes, two cheers for the lockdown.

Expand full comment

I live in Ireland, with one of the longest/strictest lockdown in the world.

If you compare Ireland's covid death rate to Sweden's, and account for the higher >65 population in Sweden (due to emigration from Ireland in the 1950s), there is almost no difference.

I can tell you from living thru the lockdown in Ireland, it is having devastating effects on our economy (especially small businesses), our young people, our mental health and drug/alcohol abuse.

From my experience in Ireland, it seems Sweden got it pretty right.

Expand full comment

This would have been a stronger article if it engaged with the strongest recent academic criticisms of lockdowns, e.g.


Allen's thesis, as I understand it, is:

-- that because actual reductions in social interaction depended largely on voluntary action, independent of what lockdown regulations were imposed, the marginal health impact of imposing lockdown regulations was small

-- that the QALY cost of lockdown regulations was nonetheless large because they made life under those stricter regulatory regimes qualitatively much worse, even relative to an appropriate counterfactual baseline, and even though they had little impact on GDP

-- and that therefore lockdowns cost more QALYs than they saved.

There are a lot of possible ways you could challenge this thesis, but I don't see you doing that convincingly here.

Expand full comment

Test and trace for a virus that is spread by droplets and is aerosolised was silly from the start. And especially silly given the hysteria over fomite transmission.

Lockdowns caused deaths. People avoided restaurants out of fear which was a problem because of lockdowns and the hysteria. Sweden's economy is rebounding better than expected and will probably surpass pre-covid levels. In Africa, Tanzania stayed the most open and saw an increase in GDP. Tell the poor countries where people suffered even more under lockdown that lockdowns were 'good'. Singapore shows that lockdowns of their migrant population did not reduce transmission.

Expand full comment

Hey Noah,

What about the argument that Texas and Florida had less lockdowns and had the same amount or less deaths than California? What would the cause for this be? One factor that I've heard is that California has the highest rate of multi generational families living in homes. Any thoughts on this?

Expand full comment

As one wag put it, turns out your economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of your healthcare system.

Expand full comment

Hum noah,

Did you read David Wallace Wells's piece ?


Several ideas in this paper:

- its not that easy to explain geographical differences in covid deaths mortality and non pharmaceutical interventions do not necessarily explain them

- a single set of policies can work at a given location, not in every country

- all of that is complicated

enjoy the reading, i think DW Wells is worth reading in general and if you have time would like your feddback on this paper :)

Expand full comment

This is an interesting discussion. I am ambiguous about the lockdowns based on experience of various places, but nonetheless I feel there are two methodological problems with what is being portrayed here.

I don't think there is much mainstream debate over whether or not lockdowns reduced Covid infections - I can assume they did. The question at the beginning though was a legitimate one, which is not whether Covid infections would change but whether that in fact meant anything. In any medical emergency, people - especially the most vulnerable people - will stay at home (we will get to that further, below). Throughout the event we have seen that Covid is a condition whose effects do skew towards certain groups, particularly the old and those suffering with any form of respiratory weakness. What we have not seen is the effects of what creating "bubbles" for the vulnerable would have led to, instead of general lockdowns.

Of course regardless of this, implementation in the US is difficult, but elsewhere the experiment could have been clearer (in Japan for instance), so it is a pity that we do not have any evidence. This, by the way, is also the key point about vaccines, which are of course not there to reduce cases to "zero", since this will never happen; rather they are there to reduce the link between cases and serious conditions and death.

The second is on the economic impacts. I'm afraid that in this part, the author is somewhat guilty of goal-seeking what he wants. First, the fact that Sweden has performed economically significantly better than much of Europe - including countries considered to have had a "good Covid" such as Germany, is surely more telling than the comparison with Scandinavian peers. Secondly, the issue Sweden has had is that whilst its own economy remained relatively open, it is precisely because that of its neighbours did not which has caused a negative impact on GDP. Never has the effects of cross-border trade been more apparent than here, where both on a retail basis and wholesale basis, lockdowns in your neighbour spread, virus-like, to your own economy. There was no way for Sweden to not suffer and it is disingenuous to pretend that the benchmark for measuring the relative economic success of her non-lockdown is either zero or something close to it. The fact is that looking at lockdown countries, there simply is no good example of anyone who "got it right".

But there is a more particular point which one can infer from the mixed versions of what occurred in Asia, for instance Hong Kong where there was never actually a proper lockdown and companies continued as they wanted to. And this is that, as the author notes, during a well-publicised pandemic, people do their best to remain home anyway. And that's all fine and good, and natural. But the difference between a company that locks its employees out completely, versus one which decides to continue running a skeleton staff throughout, will be demonstrated best through the resilience of the bounceback which occurs afterwards. As a corporate man myself, the difference between a 70% work abstinence (Sweden) and a 75% "lockdown" (Denmark) is huge. By and large, the same 25% of the economy will be functioning in both scenarios - but the sliver of incremental private sector operations alive in the 70% scenario makes all the difference to a company when, down the road, it wants to open up again.

It is probably too early to get the full effects of this, but I suspect I say nothing controversial in saying that the US will bounce back further and faster than many OECD peers precisely because it only went through a patchwork of half-hearted lockdowns and continuity was not lost as much. The same vaguely applies to Britain's messy lockdown policy - whereas locked down countries such as Germany or Italy will suffer longer and deeper.

Expand full comment

This entire post is thoroughly dishonest. Then again, I expect nothing less.

Expand full comment

Important point is that lockdowns by themselves will not end the pandemic. I'm in Thailand and the government had very strict lockdowns and kept the numbers low.

Of course, you can't lockdown forever, and as measures ease, numbers go up. Because the government didn't try very hard to procure vaccines and instead decided to have one royally-owned company do all the manufacturing, there won't be vaccines for a while.

All this is to say that lockdowns are effective, yes, but you can't lockdown forever. Lockdowns + vaccines is the answer.

Expand full comment

This is an important discussion, and an interesting perspective. What the article misses when comparing the scandinavian countries is the export dependence. The export-to-gdp ratio of sweden in 2017 was 45%, norway 36%, denmark 55%. So while that ratio does not directly determine a ranking, it seems impossible to discuss the economy without mentioning trade.

Expand full comment