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The Covid-19 Catastrophe

Authored by Antony Davies and James Harrigan via The American Institute for Economic Research,


It has been five months since the American people were told they would be under house arrest for three weeks to “flatten the curve.” Under the guise of protecting us from Covid-19, America’s politicians completed one of the greatest nonviolent power grabs in US history, pushing the lockdowns well beyond the initial three-week prediction, thereby taking control of 330 million lives.

To justify this, they shifted the goal posts from flattening the curve, to halting transmission of the coronavirus entirely. Some even talked about maintaining lockdowns, at least in part, until a vaccine is developed. That could take years.

Quelle surprise.

How did it come to pass that a nation of 330 million was effectively imprisoned, with virtually every sector of the economy shut down either in part or in total?

The answer to this question is as clear as it was wrong: In the early days of Covid-19, politicians and experts lined up to tell us that, if we did nothing, up to 2.2 million Americans would die over the balance of 2020. 

As of late August, there have been fewer than 170,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States. If the 2.2 million projection was accurate, then the US lockdown saved in the neighborhood of 2 million lives. But at what cost?

In early March, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the economic output of the United States economy over the period 2020 through 2025 would total $120 trillion. Just four months later and because of the Covid lockdown, the CBO reduced its projection by almost $10 trillion. That $10 trillion difference is income Americans would have earned had the lockdown not happened, but now won’t. 

Economists outside the CBO have estimated this loss at almost $14 trillion. For perspective, the median US household earns $63,000. A $10 trillion loss is equivalent to wiping out the incomes of 30 million US households each year for more than five years. 

Our desire to keep people safe, no matter the cost, has already resulted in 10 million Americans being unemployed. By the time things have returned to normal, the total price tag, just in terms of lost incomes and adjusted for inflation, will have exceeded the costs of all the wars the US has ever fought, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan – combined.

And the costs are staggering. As of August, estimates from Chambers of Commerce indicate that around one-third of the 240,000 small businesses in New York City have permanently closed. If that ratio holds for small businesses elsewhere, we could see around 10 million small businesses close permanently across the country. Major retail bankruptcies in the US have been every bit as disconcerting.

All in, the effort to save two million lives from Covid-19 will end up costing us somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million per life saved. People generally assume the lockdown was worth this massive cost, but there are a couple of things to consider before drawing that conclusion.

First, for the same cost, could we have saved even more lives than we did by doing other things?

Second, how plausible was the prediction of two million dead in the first place?

If saving lives simply, rather than saving lives from Covid-19 were our goal, we could have likely saved more than two million lives and at a lower cost. How so? For every $14,000 spent on smoke and heat detectors in homes, a life is saved. For every $260,000 spent on widening shoulders on rural roads, a life is saved. For every $5 million spent putting seat belts on school buses, a life is saved.

Each year, 650,000 Americans die from heart disease, 600,000 die from cancer, 430,000 die from lung disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s. To fight these diseases Congress allocated $6 billion for cancer research to the National Cancer Institute and another $39 billion to the National Institutes of Health in 2018. 

The lockdown will cost us more than three hundred times this amount. For a three-hundred fold increase to NCI and NIH budgets, we might well have eradicated heart disease, cancer, lung disease, and Alzheimer’s. Over just a couple of years, that would have saved far more than two million lives. 

The lesson here is a simple one: There is no policy that just simply “saves lives.” The best we can do is to make responsible tradeoffs. Did the lockdowns save lives? Some people claim they did – at a cost of $7 million per life saved if the initial estimates were correct – while others fail to establish any connection between lockdowns and lives saved. 

Regardless, there are all manner of other tradeoffs here. The lockdowns didn’t just cost millions of people’s livelihoods, they also cost people’s lives. Preliminary evidence points to a rise in suicides. Nationwide, calls to suicide hotlines are up almost 50 percent since before the lockdown. People are less inclined to keep medical appointments, and as a result life-saving diagnoses are not being made, and treatments are not being administered. Drug overdoses are up, and there is evidence that instances of domestic violence are on the rise also.

But what if the lockdown actually didn’t save 2 million lives? There is strong, if not irrefutable, evidence that the initial projections of Covid-19 deaths were wildly overstated. 

We can refer to a natural experiment in Sweden for some clarity. Sweden’s government did not lock down the country’s economy, though it recommended that citizens practice social distancing and it banned gatherings of more than 50 people. Swedish epidemiologists took the Imperial College of London (ICL) model – the same model that predicted 2.2 million Covid-19 deaths for the United States – and applied it to Sweden. The model predicted that by July 1 Sweden would have suffered 96,000 deaths if it had done nothing, and 81,600 deaths with the policies that it did employ. In fact, by July 1, Sweden had suffered only 5,500 deaths. The ICL model overestimated Sweden’s Covid-19 deaths by a factor of nearly fifteen.

If the ICL model overestimated US Covid-19 deaths merely by a factor of ten, the number of Americans who would have died had we not locked down the country, but instead practiced social distancing and banned gatherings of more than 50 people, would have been around 220,000. 

To date, the CDC reports around 170,000 covid deaths in the United States. In other words, adjusting – even conservatively – for the ICL model’s demonstrated error, it appears that the $14 trillion lockdown perhaps saved about 50,000 US lives. If that’s the case, the cost of saving lives via the lockdown was not $7 million each. The cost was over a quarter of a billion dollars each.

Finally, there is mounting evidence that even if targeted closures had been necessary, a general lockdown wasn’t. Eighty percent of Covid-19 deaths in the US are among those 65 and older. Even if ICL’s flawed model had been correct, and we had been facing the possibility of 2.2 million deaths, only 400,000 of those would have been among working-age Americans. That’s less than two-tenths of one percent of working-age Americans. Social distancing and mandatory masks might have reduced that further. We could have quarantined the elderly, saved nearly all the lives that even the most dire predictions anticipated, and let the economy continue on as usual.

But we didn’t.

Of course, in March, we knew a lot less than we do now. In the face of 2.2 million likely deaths, many claimed that locking down the economy was the right thing to do. Over the subsequent weeks, as data emerged that the threat was far less deadly and far more focused than it had at first appeared, politicians could have released the lockdown. 

But they didn’t.

They didn’t because politicians invariably feel the need to “do something.” Despite volumes of evidence from disparate fields like economics, social work, ecology, and medicine, it never seems to occur to politicians that sometimes doing less, or even doing nothing, is by far the better approach. Why should it occur to them? When politicians act and their actions do more harm than good, they always say the same thing: “Imagine how bad it would have been had we not acted.” 

But this time, we have evidence. We can compare what happened where politicians reacted with a heavy hand to what happened where they reacted with a light touch. And the evidence we have so far points to the same conclusion: Our politicians destroyed our economy unnecessarily.

This won’t stop our politicians from congratulating themselves, of course. Nothing ever does. When the next crisis comes along they will land on the same sorts of heavy-handed solutions they did this time. The only thing that will chasten them is the anger of the American people. Politicians did far more harm to Americans than Covid-19 did, and that’s what the American people need to remember next time our politicians start down the same pointless road.

Because they will.

4 thoughts on “The Covid-19 Catastrophe”

  1. I have examined the C++ code for the model implementation from the booty-call bozo at Imperial College who produced the 2.2 million mortality estimate.

    It’s complete shite. It looks like the typical crap code we see in academic settings. It’s a snarled ball of mess.

    This clown (Ferguson) would never have been found out if his mistress, a plump little married tart who works for a left-wing NGO in London, had not been pulled over for being out past curfew on her way to see Mr. Henny-Penny for a booty call. After the spotlight was swung in his direction, we came to find out that he had made hysterical projections (more than 2 OOM high) in the SARS and MERS cases as well. The guy is a professional hysteric – who happens to play hide-the-salami with chubby blondes when he can work it into his busy schedule.

    But because of that, the truth came out and we saw what a steaming pile his projections were, and how fundamentally crooked his projections/estimates were – time and time again. This time, he got lucky and gains a whole lot of press from his projection.

    Reply
    • I have to blame the decision-makers on this one. Ferguson has a track record with this kind of thing, and he’s always made these mindbogglingly extreme predictions of deaths that never, ever happen. Whatever is going on with him, he’s never been right about anything.

      So, why didn’t the brainy politicians look into this guy’s track record and evaluate accordingly?

      Because, basically, they’re ignorant dolts who were probably asleep during any sort of science class in school, and who sought out the easiest possible courses of study.

      I’m sorry, but at this point in human history? I expect better performance out of the leadership, performance we aren’t getting. Someone should have looked at Ferguson’s COVID-19 BS, and asked the question: What has this guy done before, and why should I listen to him now? Has he made accurate epidemiological projections in the past? What were they?

      Instead, they listened to him and took him seriously, despite ample cause not to. They just didn’t look, and they got taken to the cleaners.

      I’m still not sure that given the crap surrounding Fauci that we’re not being played with every word that incompetent boob has spoken since day one. He also has a track record, and that one isn’t very good, either. I mean, seriously–He’s illegally diverted NIH money to the same lab that is at the epicenter of the disease…? WTF? He should have been fired, right then.

      I used to work with an actual honest-to-God microbiologist who the Army spent huge money training to be an NBC officer. At the time I worked with him, they’d sent him out for what they termed “re-greening”, to get him some time out in the “real Army”. Dude was a bona-fide genius, and the stories he told about his work at USAMRIID were hair-raising, when you recognized the implications. It was his contention that they were going to screw everything up, if we ever had a major bio-warfare issue, and that was because all the quality people left government work to go into the biotech industry, leaving the literal dregs behind. He had a really negative view of everyone working at the CDC, USAMRIID, and everywhere else he’d done work or knew people. Everything I’ve seen the government do, from the big anthrax scare around 2001 and the whole “persecute until dead” thing they did with the suspects they came up with during their witch hunt were things he predicted. Also, the H1N1 thing back in 2009.

      It was interesting to recognize that doctor in Seattle was doing exactly as he had recommended just before being sent out to “play soldier” in the field with troops, which was that we should be doing survey testing in the population to find out what the hell was actually out there. He had a white paper he was working on that basically said we needed overseas “listening posts” doing testing and sequencing of things in the human and animal populations, and that we needed to be doing the same damn thing here in the US in every hospital. It was his belief that if anyone ever did start doing biowarfare, it was going to come clear out of left field, and that the only way to get ahead of it would be to actually be doing survey work out in the hospitals. He thought that anyone going in for over-the-counter cold/flu meds ought to be required to turn in a sample swab for testing and sequencing, and that we should be doing the same thing with everyone coming into the country. He also wanted to drastically increase funding to develop automatic gene sequencing equipment to process all this information, because there’s really no way to tell what is going on in the disease population without it. Fascinating guy to talk to, and I remember shooting the shit with him late nights on command-post exercises as being simultaneously terrifying and educational.

      Probably my biggest takeaway from him is just how much we don’t know about disease. I’d love to know what the hell he’s making of this current situation, and I really wish I’d kept in touch with him.

      Reply
      • “I’m still not sure that given the crap surrounding Fauci that we’re not being played with every word that incompetent boob has spoken since day one.“

        There has been a pipeline directing millions (billions?) of taxpayer dollars every year to FDA and CDC. I guess I sort of assumed that that included some basic level of competence at handling pandemics.

        I’m not an epidemiologist or a public health guy. I’m a software guy. But I’m confident that if you let me pick a team of 3-4 of the brightest software guys I’ve worked with and told us, “prepare for a pandemic,” one of the first things my team is going to come up with is, “Hey, we’re gonna need a lot of stuff like masks, gloves, gowns. Do we have billions of those stockpiled somewhere? No. Where do they come from? Lean supply chain from China. We need to fix that and fix it now.”

        The fact that we got caught with our lean supply chain coming from China on items that would have been critical for -any- pandemic from flu to plague to Ebola to coronavirus borders on criminal incompetence.

        We should drive everyone who had ever worked for CDC/FDA out of government service, ban them from government or private sector employment and just put them on SSI disability and welfare for the rest of their lives. We should tear down all of their buildings and salt the earth where they stood. I’m shocked and appalled.

        Reply
  2. “Our politicians destroyed our economy unnecessarily.”

    No, that is entirely incorrect. They did this INTENTIONALLY.

    The evidence at this point is crystal clear this was planned for quite awhile.

    We need to finally crack some coconuts instead of just thinking about it. Far too many lives, families and businesses have been destroyed by this extreme criminality and we all know there’s no legal nor political recourse.

    Reply

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