Did Lockdowns Work? Evidence Says No

With talk of ordering more widespread shutdowns to fight the resurgence of COVID-19 cases, it is worth taking note of a paper released over the weekend on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) by Prof. Christian Bjørnskov of Aarhus University in Denmark. The paper is “Did Lockdown Work? An Economist’s Cross-Country Comparison.”

The abstract is both direct and concise (a rarity in academic writing):

I explore the association between the severity of lockdown policies in the first half of 2020 and mortality rates. Using two indices from the Blavatnik Centre’s Covid 19 policy measures and comparing weekly mortality rates from 24 European countries in the first halves of 2017-2020, and addressing policy endogeneity in two different ways, I find no clear association between lockdown policies and mortality development.

The main text of the paper reviews a couple other recent studies that reach the same conclusion, but some of Prof. Bjørnskov’s language in his conclusion leads me to think not all Danes are as far gone as the cliches might lead us to suggest:

The lockdowns in most Western countries have thrown the world into the most severe recession since World War II and the most rapidly developing recession ever seen in mature market economies. They have also caused an erosion of fundamental rights and the separation of powers in large part of the world as both democratic and autocratic regimes have misused their emergency powers and ignored constitutional limits to policy-making. It is therefore important to evaluate whether and to which extent the lockdowns have worked as officially intended: to suppress the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and prevent deaths associated with it. Comparing weekly mortality in 24 European countries, the findings in this paper suggest that more severe lockdown policies have not been associated with lower mortality. In other words, the lockdowns have not worked as intended. . .

Although much has been claimed about Sweden’s relatively high mortality rate, compared to the other Nordic countries, the present data show that the country experienced 161 fewer deaths per million in the first ten weeks, and 464 more deaths in weeks 11-22. In total, Swedish mortality rates are 14 percent higher than in the preceding three years, which is slightly more than France, but considerably fewer than Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom that all implemented much stricter policies.

The problem at hand is therefore that evidence from Sweden as well as the evidence presented here does not suggest that lockdowns have significantly affected the development of mortality in Europe. It has nevertheless wreaked economic havoc in most societies and may lead to a substantial number of additional deaths for other reasons. A British government report from April for example assessed that a limited lockdown could cause 185,000 excess deaths over the next years (DHSC, 2020). Evaluated as a whole, at a first glance, the lockdown policies of the Spring of 2020 therefore appear to be substantial long-run government failures.

Like I say, I think I like this guy.