Lockdowns may not be effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19

By | July 23, 2021

As the delta variant of the coronavirus spreads through the United States, the possibility of lockdowns is looming.

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, hinted that lockdowns might return if more people don’t get vaccinated.

“These shots need to get in everybody’s arms as rapidly as possible, or we’re going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don’t yearn for — that we went through last year,” McConnell said.

But are lockdowns, particularly “shelter-in-place” orders, actually effective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus?

Early research suggested that requiring people to stay at home unless they needed to get groceries or seek healthcare was effective. A study in Health Affairs claimed the spread of COVID-19 would have been 10 times worse without shelter-in-place orders in the U.S.

Yet, more recent research has called the effectiveness of shelter-in-place orders into question.

“What our paper finds, and I think what you find if you review the literature and look at the most compelling evidence, these shelter-in-place orders did not have meaningful effects on COVID cases and did not significantly slow the spread of the disease,” said Anthony Fowler, a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and co-author of an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the effect of shelter-in-place orders on the spread of COVID-19. “The most likely explanation is that they did not have a very big effect on people’s behavior.”

Fowler and his co-authors examined mobility patterns before and after the orders were imposed in U.S. states. They found that mobility was decreasing — and more people were staying home — before most states imposed shelter-in-place orders. Moreover, mobility only declined slightly after orders went into effect.

Read More:  World Autism Awareness Day 2021: Experts Speak to Spread Awareness About Autism Spectrum Disorder

Christopher Berry, another co-author with Fowler, emphasized that the article’s conclusion was not that shelter-in-place orders were always ineffective.

“We’re not saying that sheltering in place voluntarily is ineffective in combating COVID-19. We don’t want people to say, ‘None of this matters. Go about your business.’ We don’t have any evidence to support that,” Berry, who is also a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, said. “We’re just saying that our evidence shows that mandatory lockdowns are not effective.”

Two recent papers from the National Bureau of Economic Research also cast doubt on shelter-in-place orders. The first one found that countries or U.S. states that implemented the orders earlier did not have lower rates of COVID-19 deaths than did places that implemented them later. The second examined consumer mobility and found that most of it declined well before the orders were imposed. However, it also suggested that because most consumer activity declined before the orders were imposed, they had a minimal effect on the economy. The economic decline associated with the pandemic may have been due to people voluntarily sheltering in place.

Berry suggests that there were three basic types of people regarding shelter-in-place orders. There was a large group that was going to shelter voluntarily and socially distance after hearing about the coronavirus and listening to public health experts. There was a second large group that was not going to do those things because they did not appreciate being told what to do, especially by the government. The third group was the one that would change its behavior in response to lockdowns.

Read More:  Calculator shows how much Obamacare subsidies will increase after coronavirus relief bill

“That third group is pretty small, and in a world where the first two groups are the most numerous, the lockdown policy is just not going to have an effect,” Berry said.

Finally, new research is emerging that suggests shelter-in-place orders might actually be counterproductive in that they may do more to spread the coronavirus than prevent it. A new paper by University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan suggests that large organizations have an incentive to protect their employees and thus impose mitigation protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing. By contrast, people sheltering at home are not likely to remain isolated for long. Being social creatures, they will eventually invite friends over, throw small parties, and so on. In such gatherings, people have much less incentive to enforce mask-wearing or social distancing. The empirical evidence Mulligan collected suggests that workplaces were safer than households.

Much more research needs to be conducted before we have a definitive answer on the effectiveness of lockdowns on the spread of the coronavirus. But for now, policymakers considering shelter-in-place orders might want to examine other options.

Healthcare