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Did The Shutdowns Save Lives? A Year Later, Statistical Analysis Suggests Not


The government response to COVID-19 has mostly been a failure. Theatric, yes—see New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Emmy. Symbolic, yes. But there is no evidence shutdowns did anything but deepen the economic suffering, increase suicides, and prevent lifesaving medical tests and treatments.

With the exception of former President Trump’s effort to speed research, approval, and rollout of a COVID vaccine through Operation Warp Speed, and efforts to discourage the spread of the virus through border restrictions (now abandoned by President Biden), what policies can objectively be shown to have worked?

Last May, in The Federalist I examined state-level unemployment through April, using job losses as a proxy for the severity of government-imposed shutdowns, finding these even then suggested lockdowns had no effect on the course of “a virus released by what appears to be sloppy lab procedures in Wuhan, China.” I also found a statistical connection between a state’s reliance on mass transit and a higher fatality rate.

One year on, has anything changed? What does the data say? Does anything suggest that the shutdowns were worth it?

Let’s Take a Look at the Data

The change in private employment among the states from January 2020 to December 2020, the latest month for which data is available, can be used as a proxy for the severity of government edicts to slow the spread of the virus. It represents closed restaurants and family-owned businesses, destroyed lives and life’s savings.

In theory, this pain should have been rewarded with a lower COVID fatality rate. That’s what we were told as we obediently stayed at home. Yet the data shows no benefit earned by the states that inflicted the largest destruction on their job base, judging by the fatality rates from COVID. Graphically, it looks like this.

Another constant feature of the corporate media’s COVID-19 coverage was the claim red states were killing their people. Again, the data after a year shows no correlation between a state’s level of freedom, as measured by the Fraser Institute in their annual Economic Freedom of North America survey, and COVID fatalities.

However, there is a modest correlation between economic freedom and the strength of the job market over the past year, although it is important to note that the correlation between freedom on the state level and job creation has been a long-term trend, one that COVID-19 did not change.

Digging deeper into the data, a regression analysis seeking correlations to per capita COVID-19 fatalities at the state level to five variables—use of mass transit, change in private-sector employment, economic freedom, share of the population 65 and older, and the percentage of adults with obesity in 2020—finds only a weak connection (adjusted R square of 0.19). Only two variables are significant in this correlation: the share of mass transit use (P-value of 0.001) and prevalence of obesity (P-value of 0.009).

This would suggest that the virus takes its course regardless of the severity of shutdowns. That’s not to say that any government action is futile. For instance, the Trump administration’s effort to speed development of an effective vaccine appears likely to save a significant number of people—assuming the vaccines retain their effectiveness as the virus mutates.

More Restrictive States Didn’t See Fewer Deaths

If the preceding macroeconomic analysis isn’t convincing, there are also peer-reviewed studies that find the same. For instance, Ioannidis, Bhattacharya, et al. publishing in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation,  concluded, “we do not find significant benefits on case growth of more restrictive NPIs (nonpharmaceutical interventions)” such as mandatory stay‐at‐home orders and business closures.

Thus, with no statistically consistent difference in virus fatality outcomes between Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York’s 11.9 percent drop in private-sector jobs, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California’s 8.3 percent loss of jobs, Gov. Greg Abbott’s Texas decline of 3.7 percent, and Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Florida drop of 5.1 percent, it makes sense to encourage opening the economy while protecting the most vulnerable populations.

Lastly, as a crowning example of our politicians’ proclivity to reward failure, it is illuminating to see that more than 90 percent of the $1.9 trillion Biden stimulus is not directly related to COVID-19. Some $350 billion of the behemoth spending bill bails out the same state and local governments that inflicted the greatest damage on their own economies, realizing no measurable gain in public health.

As the Foundation for Economic Education notes, “Biden’s bill spends more than twice as much lining the pockets of bankrupt blue states than it does actually addressing public health.” But then, spending, not public health, is the purpose of the bill.