How Much Credit Should Lockdowns Get for Reducing COVID-19 Transmission?
Americans have been debating the effectiveness of COVID-19 lockdowns for months now. To what extent did broad business closure and stay-at-home orders—as opposed to narrower interventions and voluntary precautions—reduce virus transmission, thereby avoiding hospital crises, buying time to develop testing and tracing capacity, and preventing deaths that otherwise would have occurred? Conversely, to what extent can loosening those restrictions be expected to increase transmission, leading to more infections and deaths?
According to The New York Times, that debate has now been settled. “Data show,” the Times reports, that “lockdown delays cost at least 36,000 lives.” Researchers at Columbia University “found” that “even small differences in timing would have prevented the worst exponential growth,” the Times says.
“If the United States had begun imposing social distancing measures one week earlier than it did in March, about 36,000 fewer people would have died in the coronavirus outbreak,” the paper reports. “And if the country had begun locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1, two weeks earlier than most people started staying home, the vast majority of the nation’s deaths—about 83 percent—would have been avoided, the researchers estimated.” The “cost of waiting to take action,” the Times concludes, was “enormous.”
Already we see a problem with the way the Times has framed the issue, since “the United States” never “impos[ed] social distancing measures,” and “the country” never “lock[ed] down cities and limit[ed] social contact.” Instead of a single national response to COVID-19, we have seen a wide variety of local and state responses.
Worse, by conflating social distancing not only with coercive government interventions but with the most sweeping kind, the Times ignores everything else that was happening as politicians decided how to fight the epidemic. Americans were learning about the threat posed by the COVID-19 virus, especially to people with serious preexisting medical conditions, and they were reacting accordingly. They were taking to heart advice about avoiding crowds, minimizing travel and social contact, and working at home when feasible. The same scary increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths that motivated politicians to impose lockdowns also motivated people throughout the country to take precautions.
“Researchers found that the biggest risk for negative health outcomes was probably not state regulations, but people’s own behavior,” the Times reports in a different story published the same day. “Everyone wants us to talk about policy, but in fact personal behavior still matters a lot here,” Kent Smetters, faculty director at the Penn Wharton Budget Model, told the Times.
The importance of those choices is clear from the data underlying the Columbia study highlighted by the Times. To estimate “inter-county human movement in six metropolitan areas,” the researchers used data from SafeGraph, which tracks foot traffic counts at 5 million “points of interest” across the country, including bars, restaurants, stores, airports, hotels, and shopping malls. Their charts for Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, and New York show sharp declines in movement that began in
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