Were the Lockdowns a Mistake?

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Photo by Engin Akyurt | Unsplash

Photo by Engin Akyurt | Unsplash

On January 21, Washington DC mayor Muriel Bowser announced that she was partially reinstating indoor dining in her city. Far from being a pioneering move, this was merely the continuation of a “lockdown reversal” which has been taking place throughout the country for several months. Restaurants are reopening in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and other states which (perhaps not coincidentally) are run by Democratic governors.  Museums and other formerly shut down establishments have recently reopened, or soon will partially reopen, as well.  


If statistics showed that the country was in the tail end of the coronavirus pandemic, this lockdown reversal would make perfect sense. After all, the initial theory of the lockdowns was that the closures of restaurants, stores, bars, museums, and other indoor establishments where people tend to congregate were the best way to slow the spread of the virus. Therefore, one would expect that this recent movement in favor of the status quo ante would be a strong indicator that the statistics were trending downward in terms of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.


Yet, at precisely the same moment that America is reopening, the statistics are worse than they have ever been and it’s not even close. Based on CDC statistics, for the five months from February 23 through July 23, there were 3.8 million COVID cases and 144,000 deaths. In the last month alone, there have been 7 million cases and 100,000 deaths.  Until as recently as December 4, the highest daily death count was 2,600.  We have passed that number 20 times since then, including 15 days over 3,000 and 5 days over 4,000.  Inauguration Day was the second-highest death total ever recorded, 4,367. The new case differentials are even starker.  Prior to the beginning of November, the peak number of new cases was 70,006 on July 23. What we would give for that number today. Since December 1, the lowest total was 201,186, and on January 8, we hit 300,000 cases for the first time.


The fact is that one rarely even hears the word “lockdown” in the media anymore, at least as an option for handling the pandemic going forward.  Mask up and social distance, yes; lockdown, no.

This paradoxical coupling of events got me to wondering: Were the lockdowns a mistake in the first place, and if so, were they well-intentioned to begin with?  Consider the following alternative answers to this question.


  1. No, because, but for those lockdowns, the statistics would be even worse today.

  2. No, and we should be reinstituting those lockdowns again today.

  3. Yes, because even if the decisions were made in good faith, they should not have been instituted to begin with because the economic and societal costs were too great

  4. Yes, and they were not instituted in good faith to begin with, because their real goal was to hurt Trump.


In my opinion, we can rule out the first two.  After all, if they were the right move for the country at the outset of the pandemic, then there is no good argument for why they should be phased out now.  In fact, since the whole country seems to be becoming a hotspot, the lockdowns should be on the upswing if the rationale for the lockdowns was correct in the first place.  In August, then-candidate Joe Biden said that he would shut down the country again if that’s what the scientists recommended. Apparently, the scientists are not now making that recommendation because, in spite of the emphasis made by Biden since winning the election on controlling the virus, it is clear that renewed lockdowns were ever the right move.


Of course, the concerns about the economic and societal effects of the lockdowns are as old as the call for the lockdowns themselves—they are not after-the-fact-criticisms, and they were abundant even at the time. For example, on April 3, early in the pandemic, Reuters reported that the lockdowns would lead to increased suicide, depression, alcoholism, domestic abuse, loneliness and isolation, and all of that is not to even mention mass unemployment and the devastating economic impact, especially on poorer and more vulnerable people. According to data presented by the Brookings Institute in November (even before the pandemic statistics really soared into the stratosphere), every one of the above predictions has come true.  Therefore, no one can reasonably argue that we simply had no inkling as to what the effects of the lockdowns would be or that their disastrous effects took us all by surprise.


So, if the lockdowns were a mistake, is that because of the “good faith mistake” explanation or is it the more diabolical explanation, namely that the lockdowns were politically motivated?  Proving bad faith is a tricky business.  No politician would come out and say that they are instituting lockdowns because it would lead to increased suffering and misery, for which people might blame Trump because it all occurred on his watch.  However, it is hard not to take note of the fact that the correlation between more stringent and widespread lockdowns and more lax treatment was not geographically based (i.e. north vs. south) but rather was politically based, i.e. red state versus blue state.


According to one survey, of the 15 states with the most aggressive measures towards the pandemic, 13 of them were not just blue, but deep blue, and all with Democratic governors (Alaska and West Virginia being the only exceptions). Conversely, every one of the 10 states at the other end of the spectrum had Republican governors. It is difficult to believe that this virtually complete lack of overlap is simply a coincidence.  This is not to say of course that the governors in the higher lockdown states did not genuinely believe that they were acting in the best interest of the citizens, with no political motivation at all.  If that is the case, however, that brings us back to where we started, namely if the lockdowns were the right move to begin with, how do all of these Democratic governors and mayors explain their recent relaxation of lockdowns and closures at the exact moment when the statistics are worse than they have ever been?

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