October 20, 2020 Reading Time: 8 minutes
denialism, head in the sand

Are lockdowns a thing of the past, invoked only to scare an unsuspecting public away from more limited (yet, curiously, seldom-elaborated) Covid-19 mitigation policies? Several journalists and pundits have been claiming as much recently.

Writing for Wired UK on October 7th, science journalist Matt Reynolds made this claim the centerpiece of his attack on the anti-lockdown Great Barrington Declaration:

“When the Great Barrington Declaration authors declare their opposition to lockdowns, they are quite literally arguing with the past.”

Reynolds’s piece contained an implicit concession of a point that the GBD’s authors stressed. The lockdown approach to pandemics is itself extremely destructive, and not only to economic life but to the health and well-being of the population. This year’s lockdowns are certain to create long-term public health crises of their own through deferred cancer screenings and similar “elective” medical procedures. 

They’ve impoverished millions of people around the globe. They’ve led to increases in substance abuse and domestic violence. They’ve deprived children of basic access to education. They’ve caused a radical increase in suicides and mental health issues. And as I have been consistently pointing out since the beginning of the pandemic, lockdown measure enforcement by our government has disproportionately targeted racial and ethnic minorities and the poor.

But even if these unambiguous harms are well-attested, we still have no basis to worry, writes Reynolds:

“The problem is that we aren’t in lockdown. Across the UK, pubs, restaurants, schools and universities are all largely open. The kind of lockdown that the Great Barrington Declaration seems to be railing against hasn’t been in place in the UK since mid-June. Even in places like Manchester which are under local lockdown restrictions, pubs, restaurants and schools are still open and it’s hard to find people who are advocating for a return to the lockdown we saw in March.”

Just two weeks after he penned these words, all of Wales went back into lockdown.

Although branded as a 2-week “circuit breaker” measure to stem Covid spread, the rules of this new lockdown look all too familiar. All nonessential businesses must close. Residents are ordered to shelter-in-place “except for very limited purposes” such as obtaining groceries and medical supplies. People may not visit friends or family outside of their own households. Of course, there will be fines, forcible removal, and criminal prosecution for anyone who defies the mandate.

Next came Ireland, which announced its return to full scale lockdown for the next six weeks. In addition to its shelter-in-place instructions, the Irish measure limits internal travel for essential reasons and exercise to a 5 kilometer radius from home and establishes police checkpoints to enforce the restrictions.

The return to lockdown is all the more mystifying once one considers the fact that the first round of lockdowns starting in March had no discernible effect at mitigating the pandemic, save perhaps to slightly delay the onset of its successive waves. Heavy-handed lockdown states such as New York and New Jersey, as well as countries such as Belgium, posted the highest per-capita fatality rates in the world. The models predicting apocalyptic levels of fatality in the absence of lockdowns failed time and again. Indeed, the epidemiologists, politicians, and journalists who still cling to lockdowns as matters of ideological axiom cannot even account for basic empirical defects in their justifications for the policy.

And yet we’re right back to where we started this whole mess, complete with hollow 2-week timelines attached to the “circuit breaker” approach. Remember “fourteen days to flatten the curve” before it became 1, then 2, then 3 months?

It’s not just Wales either. Starting Saturday, the entire city of London will join other northern and western regions of the UK’s under the new “Tier 2” lockdown system – a category that bans socialization outside of one’s own immediate household, limits group interaction to only 6 people – even if outdoors – and shutters businesses between the hours of 10 pm and 5 am. If Londoners don’t behave in accordance with the undemocratically imposed dictates of the government’s science advisers, they risk being elevated to “Tier 3” – effectively a return to shelter-in-place, similar to Wales.

Indeed, round two of government-imposed lockdowns have gone viral on the European continent as well. France reimposed 4 weeks of nighttime curfews on nine different population centers, a 6-person gathering rule, bar and restaurant closures, and even restrictions on regional travel. Madrid similarly reimposed a 15-day lockdown, barring residents from entering or exiting the city for non-emergency reasons. It too has a 6-person limitation on gatherings, as well as severe restrictions and overnight closures of businesses in the service industry. The Netherlands and Belgium each have “partial” lockdown policies restricting outdoor gatherings to groups of only 4 and strongly discouraging people from leaving their homes again. By all indications, these and similar policies are ratcheting up at a rapid pace, much as they did back in the spring.

Of course the pretext for reimposing lockdowns remains the same. Europe has entered the dreaded “second wave” of case spikes, ironically demonstrating the abject failure of lockdowns to stem the virus the first time around.

A quick aside: does anyone remember all those stories from over the summer, up to and including Dr. Anthony Fauci’s congressional testimony in August, in which the lockdowners lavished praise on Europe for supposedly shutting down the “right way” in the spring and successfully beating back the virus? Or how that experience supposedly showed that the United States did not lock down hard enough or that it reopened too soon? Those stories were shown to be utter nonsense at the time also – the U.S. lockdowns matched several European countries in stringency, and generally lasted 1-2 months longer than their European counterparts. But Europe’s new Covid case patterns have now vastly overtaken the same metric for the United States.

Unfortunately, lockdowner ideology continues to spread in the United States as well. True to form New York City recently reimposed zip code-based “hot spot” lockdowns last week – and promptly went to work issuing over $150,000 worth of fines to violators, once again targeting poor people and minority groups in the process. We will likely see this pattern spread in coming weeks much like Europe, only in the United States’s case it will come in addition to residual restrictions from the spring. Although the middle of the country has “reopened” for the most part, large sections of the Northeast and the West Coast – two of our major population centers – were still operating under more stringent restrictions as of two weeks ago than almost all of Europe.

The lockdowners have a branding problem though. They have long ago exhausted the public’s patience for more restrictions – especially given the paucity of evidence that they even work. In order to rationalize a return to the failed policies of the spring, the lockdowners needed to undergo an Orwellian rebranding wherein a lockdown is no longer a lockdown. Thus we get the palpable absurdities exhibited in Reynolds’s recent Wired UK article, and numerous others like it.

Lockdowns, we’re now routinely told, are just a “straw man” argument against policies from the spring with little chance of returning, all of the aforementioned evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Besides, as economist Tyler Cowen recently argued, “In most of the U.S., the lockdowns are not severe.” 

I’ll leave it to David Henderson to ably dissect the errors in Cowen’s larger argument. Jason Brennan also has a stinging critique. But suffice it to say, the type of severity Cowen refers to here is subjective in nature and largely contingent upon one’s own lot in life. To an upper-income person with a stable job and the ability to work from home over a Zoom call, such restrictions might amount to mildly inconveniencing their dining plans on a random weekday. To the service industry worker trying to hold down two jobs waiting tables though, the very same restrictions could mean an inability to make next month’s rent payment or place food on the table at home for their children. Yes, the entire lockdowner position is almost invariably argued from a place of high economic privilege.

Claiming that lockdowns are a thing of the past, while also continuing to defend and espouse their reintroduction, is now becoming its own media trope. 

Writing in the New York Times this week, disease historian John M. Barry contends that “the Great Barrington Declaration aims at a straw man, opposing the kind of large, general lockdown that began in March. No one is proposing that now.” Never mind that the Times itself did in fact editorialize in favor of a renewed and more severe lockdown as recently as August, complaining that the “United States has not had a true national lockdown, shuttering only about half the country, compared with 90 percent in other countries with more successful outbreak control.” 

The term “general” is doing some very heavy lifting in Barry’s argument though – even to the point of willful misdirection. It appeared in the Times on the very same day that the newspaper ran a notice announcing the new wave of European lockdowns including – you guessed it – the new general lockdown in Wales.

Source: New York Times, October 19, 2020

Indeed, other lockdown-supporting members of the epidemiology profession have taken to obscuring their own policies by suggesting that any argument opposing full lockdowns is a “straw man” against the past. Yale’s Gregg Gonsalves has become something of a media darling for quotes denouncing the Great Barrington Declaration (he also likes to tweet obscenities at it). On October 12th, only a week before Ireland and Wales announced their return to full-scale lockdown, Gonsalves insisted that “NO ONE” was arguing for the return of such policies. Revived lockdowns, he continued, were “a straw man argument [that] is being set up by those who want to mislead the American and British publics.” It’s a claim he repeated from October 5th denouncing the “straw man” of full lockdowns in response to an interview with the three Great Barrington Declaration authors. The very suggestion, he contended, made for a “convenient bogeyman.” Gonsalves made a similar claim on September 22nd, accusing Martin Kulldorff of setting up the prospect of renewed lockdowns as a “straw man” against less severe restrictions.

Other lockdowners joined in on the trope. On October 14th Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen, another outspoken opponent of the GBD who has spent the last few weeks tweeting conspiracy theories about its motives, echoed the same “straw man” charge to dismiss the notion of any renewed lockdown push in the near future. With Ireland and Wales now announcing their returns to full lockdown, and much of Europe trending in the same direction, who exactly is misleading the public again?

Another recent tactic entails changing the language of the lockdown debate to cloak it in euphemism.

The badly misnamed John Snow Memorandum – a new petition of lockdowner epidemiologists and activists meant to counter the GBD – adopts a similar tactic of deflection by changing the language of their desired strategy itself. The policies of the spring are now known as “general population restrictions” and to avoid such policies again we must impose not lockdowns but other localized “restrictions.” Thus they conclude:

“The purpose of these restrictions is to effectively suppress SARS-CoV-2 infections to low levels that allow rapid detection of localised outbreaks and rapid response through efficient and comprehensive find, test, trace, isolate, and support systems so life can return to near-normal without the need for generalised restrictions.”

We tried these policies already, and with almost no democratically expressed say in how they were implemented. Now the rebranded lockdowners want to force another round of the same by any other name, pitching it as “targeted” and “regional” even though the measures they desire are identical or even more stringent than the generalized original versions.

And yet as you read the paragraph above, consider this: the signers of the Snow letter have been calling almost all of the political shots in governments around the world since the pandemic began. All they have to offer us now are slightly rebranded versions of the same failed policies, pushed upon us again under ever-changing rationalizations with no end in sight and no evidence that they will ever achieve what they claim. 

As the latest repackaging of this epidemiological bill of goods gains traction in our public discourse, the world has but one viable pathway out of the present social, economic, and medical hellscape. And that is to meet the lockdowners with a resounding no.

Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness

Phillip W. Magness works at the Independent Institute. He was formerly the Senior Research Faculty and F.A. Hayek Chair in Economics and Economic History at the American Institute for Economic Research. He holds a PhD and MPP from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, and a BA from the University of St. Thomas (Houston). Prior to joining AIER, Dr. Magness spent over a decade teaching public policy, economics, and international trade at institutions including American University, George Mason University, and Berry College. Magness’s work encompasses the economic history of the United States and Atlantic world, with specializations in the economic dimensions of slavery and racial discrimination, the history of taxation, and measurements of economic inequality over time. He also maintains an active research interest in higher education policy and the history of economic thought. His work has appeared in scholarly outlets including the Journal of Political Economy, the Economic Journal, Economic Inquiry, and the Journal of Business Ethics. In addition to his scholarship, Magness’s popular writings have appeared in numerous venues including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, Politico, Reason, National Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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