September 3, 2020 Reading Time: 8 minutes

From the moment it became clear that the coronavirus was headed for our shores and that much of the United States was gearing up to follow China and Italy into lockdown, my instincts told me that this was the wrong response. We cannot simply cease indefinitely the functioning of large swaths of society without a terrible, adverse impact on ourselves and the world, I thought. 

Yet on the liberal-left, since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an almost complete absence of discussion and debate on the subject. Anyone who dares to suggest that we have overreacted to the threat of coronavirus, and in doing so, have caused more harm than the disease itself, is accused of being a grandma-killer, a fascist, and worse. 

Indeed, it is by and large impossible even to make the case to members of the educated, liberal class, due to the hysteria that doing so evokes. Six months later, it continues to astound me that family and friends have neglected to recognize the clear evidence that lockdowns are ineffective and exceedingly harmful, particularly for the poor and working class, and should be discarded immediately and forever as a way of managing a pandemic. 

Even if one considers only life and death itself — as opposed to the psychological distress of losing one’s job or a business it took decades to build — hundreds of thousands of business closures are leading to mass unemployment. Since 44 percent of all U.S. economic activity comes from small businesses, the scale of these closures will devastate economic growth; experts believe it will take a decade or more to recover. 

Over the coming months and years, this will breed poverty, which in turn will lead to deaths of despair from suicide, drug addiction, and untreated medical conditions. Indeed, researchers found that a surge of unemployment in 1982 cut the life spans of Americans by a collective two to three million years. Ten thousand additional people committed suicide between 2007 and 2009 as a result of the bleak job market in the United States and Europe

The livelihoods of doctors, lawyers, professors, and bankers are, for the most part, secure despite the lockdowns and resulting economic downturn. Rather, unsurprisingly, it is poor Americans who are bearing the burden of the lockdowns and will bear the brunt of the economic pain in the future. Then, there are the many documented cases of people who were denied crucial medical care, like chemotherapy or surgery, or forced to delay screening procedures because of lockdowns, or who were so afraid of contracting the virus that they did not go to a doctor, and accordingly died or will die because of delayed diagnosis and treatment.

For those who care about lives outside of America, UNICEF has estimated that worldwide, 6,000 children are likely to die daily because lockdowns in various parts of the world are causing disruptions in the supply chain and humanitarian services; the number of people suffering acute hunger will probably double to 250 million, for the same reasons

Already, 10,000 additional children die of malnutrition a month because of lockdowns; 550,000 more per month are suffering from wasting, which is malnutrition so severe it causes significant, lifelong health problems. Malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV are on the rise again, especially in developing countries because of lockdowns; those illnesses cause millions of deaths per year, so their resurgence should concern the liberals who claim to care about human life

In addition to causing more death than the coronavirus itself, rendering them a dubious means of managing the pandemic, lockdowns are unethical. Depriving people of their freedom of movement, association, and ability to earn a livelihood and obtain an education, and to interact with people outside of their households (which, my liberal comrades seems to have forgotten, is a basic human need) is cruel, and should not be considered in any free society. 

We are now seeing the effects of these immoral policies, whether they are enforced legally or through social control (that is, condemnation from friends and neighbors). Domestic violence and child abuse – physical and sexual — are on the rise, as women and children are trapped at home with their abusers. The CDC recently reported eroding mental health nationwide, leading to suicidal thoughts and increased substance abuse, especially among 18- to 24-year-olds

In Britain, despair brought on by isolation has led to a sharp rise in suicide attempts – at one point a six-fold increase—in the elderly. I dread to see what the coming months bring, especially if Governor Cuomo refuses to change course and reopen New York City at a far greater pace than he has over the summer. To anyone who believes that the esteemed governor, moralizing from his perch in Albany, has spent five seconds contemplating the plight of a working-class mother trapped in a one-bedroom apartment in January with three children and an abusive partner while both are out of work because of the lockdown, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. 

Then there is the deprivation of education. Undoubtedly, prolonged school shutdowns will adversely impact children, especially poor and minority children. Parents of means can always find ways to educate their children, whether by enrolling them in private school or hiring tutors. But for working class and poor parents, who do not have those options, and cannot afford a laptop per child, the continued school shutdown is an epic disaster. 

The disproportionate, negative effects on children from poor families has already been demonstrated, and over the coming years will continue to manifest as existing inequalities are further exacerbated by the deprivation of six months or a year of in-person learning.

Perhaps all of these terrible consequences could be justified if lockdowns were preventing the mass coronavirus deaths that Neil Ferguson predicted in March, using the now-debunked Imperial Model. Indeed, it was this model that prompted many Western politicians to panic. Programmers who later examined the code deemed it “totally unreliable,” a “buggy mess,” and found that it could not be replicated and that it yielded wildly inaccurate results. Why governments relied upon Mr. Ferguson’s model to enact such extreme policies, given that his disease modeling had been grossly exaggerated many times in the past, is a topic for another day

Not only were the lockdowns premised on bad science but, contrary to the premature declarations of publications such as the New York Times and politicians like Governor Cuomo, suppressive measures do not work. In fact, the Lancet recently published a study in which the authors concluded that “rapid border closures, full lockdowns, and wide-spread testing were not associated with COVID-19 mortality per million people.” 

Many epidemiologists have observed that the virus follows the same trajectory nearly everywhere, regardless of government restrictions: it climbs, plateaus, and then retreats within about six to ten weeks. As scientists are beginning to discover, herd immunity appears to require a much lower rate of coronavirus infection in the population than had previously been assumed (20-40% as opposed to 60-80%) and probably explains this pattern. Sunetra Gupta, an epidemiologist at Oxford University, has theorized that is because of T-cell cross immunity acquired through exposure to other coronaviruses, or another innate immunity. She has amassed substantial evidence to support her theory that many of the hardest hit locales like New York City and London have reached herd immunity thresholds because so much of the population was not susceptible to coronavirus infection in the first place.   Yet, Gupta has found it difficult to publish her work in journals, because “anything that deviates from the consensus has been met with criticism — not simply of the science, but we’ve been labelled as saying things that are dangerous.”  

Consistent with this thesis, many of the areas that enacted widespread lockdowns before being struck hard by the virus in Germany, France, and Spain, for instance, are seeing resurgences. By contrast, Sweden never imposed government-mandated lockdowns, relying entirely on its citizenry to voluntarily socially distance (Sweden never implemented a mask policy, and they are scarcely worn there, so that cannot be the explanation for its success). 

Early on in the pandemic, the Times, obviously seeking to propagate its pro-lockdown position, frequently ran pieces crowing that Sweden was a “cautionary tale” and a “pariah state.” Of course, utilizing basic critical thinking skills should lead one to recognize that Sweden’s approach entailed a higher death rate in the short term, in exchange for a lower one in the long run, because the country would achieve herd immunity. 

Sweden’s lead epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, understood the tradeoffs, and made what is proving to be the better choice. Incidentally, as of late, the Times and other liberal-leaning news outlets have been suspiciously silent about Sweden, which now has almost no coronavirus deaths and very few cases

As demonstrated by Sweden, there is a very strong argument to be made that the best way of managing the virus is to find ways of protecting the vulnerable populations – those above 65 and with certain comorbidities — who face a real threat of severe illness and death, and build up herd immunity among the healthy and relatively young, whose risk of an adverse outcome is negligible. Indeed, the most recent evidence has established that “[f]or every 1,000 people infected with the coronavirus who are under the age of 50, almost none will die.” While some have argued that such an approach is cruel because it would force the vulnerable to shelter indefinitely, at this point it is eminently clear that achieving herd immunity among those who can handle the virus is the most humane way to protect the vulnerable. Had we adopted this strategy six months ago, those now in vulnerable groups would be able to navigate society without fear, as they currently are in Sweden

Despite all of this evidence, to suggest in the company of liberals that we would be better off adopting an approach similar to Sweden’s is to commit personal and professional suicide. I have speculated endlessly about how this has happened amongst the group that I once considered rational. One of the primary culprits is, I believe, the media, especially the New York Times and Washington Post

Not so long ago, I, too, rarely questioned anything in their pages. But then it became obvious to me that these papers were not covering material about the coronavirus and lockdowns honestly and objectively. Many of the Times journalists either do not understand the difference between correlation and causation and positive coronavirus tests and severe illness, or are purposely obfuscating the truth. When the negative effects of lockdowns are acknowledged, they are erroneously attributed to the “pandemic,” to obscure the fact that they are not an inevitable result of the virus. Why the Times took this stance, after toying early on with a more balanced one, I cannot say. 

Perhaps it was because President Trump expressed concern about shutdowns, citing prospective harm to the economy. Maybe that prompted the newspaper to create a false dichotomy between people who care about lives and people who care about the economy.

Irrational fear is also playing a significant role. Whether because of the media, or their own human shortcomings, most liberals have drastically overestimated their risk of severe illness and death from the virus. I see this personally, on a day-to-day basis, from healthy people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s who earnestly believe the virus poses a significant threat to them. Recent polls are consistent with my personal experience. Americans believe that people aged 55 and older account for only half of coronavirus deaths, when the actual figure is 92%. While Americans believe that 30% of coronavirus deaths are among people under 44, the real percentage is 2.7

Finally, a less charitable explanation is that the pro-lockdown liberals’ stance, while wrapped in the guise of humanitarianism, is in fact rooted in sheer self-preservationism. Since they’re able to work comfortably from their living rooms with paychecks intact, their sole concern is to protect themselves from the coronavirus at all costs, including the lives and livelihoods of the lower classes. 

I suspect that for most it is a confluence of these factors. It is my hope to convince the liberal/left that our principles, which ostensibly entail concern for minorities and the poor, working and middle classes, and which recognize the importance of human liberty and dignity, should lead us to abhor lockdowns. At the very least, the fact that discussion on the subject is considered off-limits should prompt some self-reflection. Because beyond our current circumstances, I worry about the future. When the next pandemic arrives, will we see the lockdown approach as the disaster that it was? Or will we again rush headlong into another, never-ending shutdown? That is, if we ever come out of this one.

Jenin Younes

Jenin Younes

Jenin Younes is a graduate of Cornell University and New York University School of Law.

Jenin currently works as a civil liberties attorney in Washington DC.

She enjoys running, restaurants, and reading in her free time.

Get notified of new articles from Jenin Younes and AIER.

Related Articles – Authoritarianism, Classical Liberalism, Crisis