The last 15 months have been unprecedented, to say the least. Lockdowns aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 caused many struggles, from economic ones to mental and social ones.
A key question our policymakers are now faced with is whether their preferred policy interventions to “stop the spread” of the virus caused more harm than good.
A new paper from economists at the University of Southern California and the RAND Corporation examined stay-at-home orders, or “shelter in place” (SIP) mandates, across 43 countries and every state in the U.S. They use the metric of “excess deaths,” which compares overall deaths to all causes from a historical baseline.
Lockdown orders were imposed in March 2020 to prevent deaths due to COVID-19. The primary finding of the study was that following the implementation of SIP policies, excess mortality actually increased, not decreased, in the jurisdictions where they were enacted.
Internationally, the researchers note, excess deaths actually decreased leading up to the implementation of SIP policies, revealing the policy was misguided from the start. Across all countries, the study found that a one-week increase in the length of SIP policies corresponds with 2.7 more excess deaths per 100,000 people.
Domestically, excess mortality was found to have increased in the immediate weeks following SIP implementation, before trending below zero after the order had been implemented for 20 weeks.
The researchers failed to confirm that governments who implemented SIP policies earlier and maintained them longer had lower excess deaths than governments who were slower to implement such measures. This finding alone shows that such control imposed on individuals’ civil liberties was misguided and unjust, at best. The study found SIP mandates to be effective only in island jurisdictions.
Another key point raised in the paper that often goes unmentioned is that SIP orders have potential impacts on other health matters that could lead to increased stress, anxiety, substance abuse, suicides, and increases in child abuse and domestic violence, among others.
Indeed, SIP orders did have this effect. According to a June 2020 CDC report, 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use due to stay-at-home orders and 10.7% reported a serious consideration of suicide, compared to 4.3% in 2018. That’s a more than 200% increase.
Deaths attributed to drug overdose also skyrocketed in recent months. They jumped 29% in just one year.
Teen suicide attempts also spiked during the lockdowns. The mix of social isolation and existing mental health issues led to suicide attempts increasing by as much as 51% in female teenagers during lockdowns.
The economists’ findings come at a time when more and more research is being published on the inefficacy of lockdown orders.
As the data reveal, more people died after the implementation of lockdowns. Instead of forcing all of society to follow along with policy interventions that make pretend we’re “doing something” about the virus, leaders and public health officials should have focused their attention in places where policy intervention could have improved health outcomes — like in nursing homes.