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The Human Cost of Coercive Science

John G. West
Photo credit: Queven, via Pixabay.

Did lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic actually work? That’s the question a study recently released by a research center at Johns Hopkins University attempted to answer. 

Authored by three economists, the “meta-analysis” sought to evaluate the effectiveness of lockdowns to reduce deaths from COVID-19 deaths. The study defined a lockdown as any “compulsory, non-pharmaceutical intervention,” and it synthesized and analyzed results from two dozen other studies. The economists reached a startling conclusion: “lockdowns have had little to no effect on COVID-19 mortality.” To be more specific, “lockdowns in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% on average” and shelter-in-place orders in particular “were also ineffective, only reducing COVID-19 mortality by 2.9% on average.” 

Following “The Science”

This new study is far from the the final word on the effectiveness of lockdowns. Perhaps these economists are wrong. But at least they are beginning to ask the right questions. If we are serious about following “the science,” it makes sense to ask what the evidence actually shows about what works and what doesn’t.

But there is another question that needs to be asked as well: Even if lockdown policies were shown to have significantly reduced mortality, did their benefits outweigh their costs? 

To answer that question, we need to know not only the impact lockdowns had on COVID-19 mortality, but also their impact on crime rates, unemployment, education, child development, suicides, mental health, and deaths from other causes. We also need to consider the impact on intangible goods such as free speech and religious liberty. This is a point I tried to make in a talk I originally gave in May 2020, later posted on YouTube. It was also a central point of the 2020 book The Price of Panic by Discovery Senior Fellows Douglas Axe and Jay Richards along with William Briggs, one of the first major books to address COVID-19 public policies. 

Calculating the Costs

Unfortunately, we have just begun to scratch the surface of calculating the real costs of lockdowns and related measures. Which brings to me to the nightmare still being experienced by Melissa Henderson in Blairsville, Georgia.

Melissa is a single mom with five kids. To support her family, she needs to work. But when the lockdowns came in 2020, her daycare provider shut down. So she had to find another solution, and she asked her 14-year-old daughter Linley to babysit. One day Melissa’s four-year-old son went out to play with his neighbor friend. It took a few minutes for Linley to notice, because she was doing online schooling. By that time, the neighbor had called 911. 

To be clear, it is legal for youth as young as 13 to babysit in Georgia. That didn’t stop the police from arresting Melissa (handcuffs and all) and putting her in jail. Fortunately, her ex-husband bailed her out. Melissa was eventually charged with a crime that could send her to prison for a year. Her case has been dragging on now for nearly two years. The police and prosecutors seem like characters right out of Les Misérables

How Many Melissas?

Of course, the officials who imposed Georgia’s lockdown did not intend to deprive Melissa of her ability to support her family. Nor did they intend for her to be abusively prosecuted. But it happened nonetheless. 

How many other Melissas are there, people hurt in serious ways by the lockdown policies? I don’t know. What I do know is this: Until we have a full accounting of all the Melissas there are, we won’t really know how effective — or costly — the lockdowns were.

Lockdowns were imposed on society in the name of science, although the actual scientific basis of many of the measures employed was unclear at best. But there is nothing scientific in avoiding an honest discussion of their actual results.