flinders-street-station
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

It has been taken as lore that lockdowns — for all their faults — dramatically stop the spread of COVID-19, such that the cost of those lockdowns pale in comparison to the lives being saved by the communal sacrifice. But as Daniel Andrews announced yesterday that Melbourne’s lockdown is likely to continue, in one form or another, for several months, there is one big problem. 

Lockdowns don’t seem to work. 

Experts who have taken the time to look at data from lockdowns have discovered that they don’t appear to stop the spread of COVID-19. In fact, when experts compared the data, it appears that lockdowns made no difference at all. 

Invest in the journalism that makes a difference.

EOFY Sale. A year for just $99.

SAVE 50%

Intuitively this seems contrary to common sense. The Burnet Institute claimed that Victoria’s stage three lockdown “saved” more than 18,000 cases. Its analysis seems to be based on correlation equalling causation.

In other words, the only reason the infection rate dropped was due to lockdown. But analysing infection rates in a single region before and after a lockdown is far from an optimal approach. It’s a bit like giving someone a vaccine, and claiming the vaccine worked because the recipient never got sick.

A far more useful analysis is comparing the results of different regions, some of which locked down, some of which didn’t.

Helpfully, America’s state-by-state approach to lockdowns allow for such a comparison. States like California locked down hard and early, while others like New York delayed before a long, harsh lockdown. Florida and Arizona barely locked down at all. 

Donald Luskin of advisory firm TrendMacro undertook analysis of how the different lockdowns impacted infection rates across US states. His finding was counterintuitive: “Lockdowns correlated with a greater spread of the virus. States with longer, stricter lockdowns also had larger COVID outbreaks. The five places with the harshest lockdowns — the District of Columbia, New York, Michigan, New Jersey and Massachusetts — had the heaviest caseloads.” 

The obvious concern with that finding is that by the time states like New York finally locked down, the virus had already spread. So Luskin ran the numbers again after states started reopening in April.

The result? “There was a tendency (though fairly weak) for states that opened up the most to have the lightest caseloads. The states that had the big summer flare-ups in the so-called ‘Sunbelt second wave’ — Arizona, California, Florida and Texas — are by no means the most opened up, politicised headlines notwithstanding.”

Luksin noted, “the lesson is not that lockdowns made the spread of COVID-19 worse — although the raw evidence might suggest that — but that lockdowns probably didn’t help and opening up didn’t hurt. This defies common sense. In theory, the spread of an infectious disease ought to be controllable by quarantine. Evidently not in practice, though we are aware of no researcher who understands why not.” 

Fellow scientist and entrepreneur TJ Rodgers reached a similar finding in April, stating “we ran a simple one-variable correlation of deaths per million and days to shutdown, which ranged from minus-10 days (some states shut down before any sign of COVID-19) to 35 days for South Dakota, one of seven states with limited or no shutdown. The correlation coefficient was 5.5% — so low that the engineers I used to employ would have summarised it as ‘no correlation’ and moved on to find the real cause of the problem.” 

Lyman Stone, adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a fascinating article back in April arguing that “it is vitally important that policymakers focus their efforts on policies that do work (masks, central quarantines, travel restrictions, school cancellations, large-assembly limits), and avoid implementing draconian, unpopular policies that don’t work (lockdowns)”.

Stone looked at examples across Europe and the US, noting in Italy that “the death spike in Lombardy had already plateaued or even begun to decline before the region-wide lockdown could have been responsible. Indeed, it appears that the very modest municipal lockdowns of March 1 in extremely hard-hit areas, along with region-wide cancellation of school and large assemblies, may have been the actual trigger for declining deaths. The timing of death declines simply does not match the timing of lockdowns”. 

In simple terms: the data across regions show that lockdowns themselves don’t impact the infection rate of COVID-19. 

This also happened in Australia. Victoria, which had by far the harshest and longest lockdown during April and May, had virtually all of Australia’s cases in the second wave.

The predictable response to these empirical studies by economists which disprove the efficacy of lockdowns is to dismiss any evidence and point to “medical experts”. So what do the medical experts say? The World Health Organization (WHO) claim that lockdowns are now not the preferred approach. The Telegraph reported that Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, who is head of the WHO’s emerging diseases unit, warned countries against lockdowns, instead favouring a “tailored, specific, localised” response. 

Johan Giesecke, who helped guide Sweden’s controversial response to the virus, has been appointed as the deputy chairman of the WHO’s infectious diseases advisory panel. Giesecke noted that in poor countries, “lockdowns cause more problems than they solve”.

Meanwhile German Health Minister Jens Spahn last week conceded that “with the knowledge of today, I can tell you no hairdressers would have to close and no shops … that will not happen again. We won’t need visitor bans in care homes, either.” 

The data told us back in April that full lockdowns don’t work, but smart and targeted responses do. The experts from the WHO agree. Sadly it appears no one has bothered to tell Daniel Andrews.

Save this EOFY while you make a difference

Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
SAVE 50%