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A viral disease known as COVID-19 has been declared the cause of death of over one hundred thousand Americans.
When cases first appeared in the United States, individual states considered and then implemented various forms of mandatory lockdown to “flatten the curve” of new cases and minimize the death toll. I have previously questioned the wisdom of these lockdowns here. Although some of the lockdowns have been relaxed or lifted, there is ongoing debate over whether the lockdowns should be reinstated to avoid a second wave of COVID-19 cases.
A lockdown is one form of mandatory restriction of freedom of action. Restrictions in the US have included bans on serving customers in restaurants and other places of business, bans of peaceful gatherings of too many people in one location (in violation of “social distancing” requirements), and bans on religious worship by groups deemed to have too many people in one place of worship.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution lists the right to peaceably assemble and the right to free exercise of religion. The First Amendment is part of what is called the Bill of Rights. Note that these amendments are not known as the Bill of Privileges or the Bill of Nice Things to be Purchased by Taxes. The US Constitution could not have been ratified without the Bill of Rights, so these rights are fundamental to what it means to be an American. There is no question that the COVID-19 lockdowns denied Americans these fundamental rights. The only question is whether the denial of these rights was necessary.
Some proponents of lockdown start and end their argument by stating the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19. The magnitude of the number is supposed to end any further discussion. Anyone who questions whether the lockdowns have actually saved any lives are dismissed as having a callous disregard for human life. Back when the death toll from COVID-19 was around thirty thousand, I compared COVID-19 deaths to the annual deaths from influenza. Some of my colleagues repeatedly notify me when the death toll from COVID-19 is updated. Their point is that if deaths from COVID-19 exceed some arbitrary number the lockdowns will have been vindicated. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the deaths occurred during lockdowns or not; deaths from COVID-19 justify any action by government.
Comparisons with flu epidemics provide a frame of reference. The point is that in the past American civilization somehow survived comparable crises with similar death tolls without requiring lockdowns. Freedom of worship and freedom of peaceable assembly are constitutionally protected rights. The only plausible justification for suspending those rights would be an imminent and credible threat to the existence of America that required immediate and united effort to avoid. A final death toll from COVID-19 of two hundred thousand or even 1 million would not change the argument despite being a substantially greater tragedy.
Some of my colleagues argue that life is priceless and is more important than any economic consideration. This is contrary to the foundation of America. During the debate over secession from Britain at the Second Virginia Convention held in 1775, Patrick Henry asked the audience, which included Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Patrick Henry concluded his address with a passionate answer: “but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” This quote is synonymous with a core American value: that the freedom to live one’s life as one chooses is even more important than life itself. Individuals should choose whether the risks of socializing (including risks of contracting COVID-19) are worth the benefits of social exchange. It is not a matter of putting a dollar value on life; it is a recognition that people regularly risk their lives voluntarily in pursuit of happiness. We could completely eliminate deaths from motor vehicle accidents by banning motor vehicles. We continue to voluntarily use them, because the economic benefits of doing so are more valuable to us than the risks to our lives.
Another argument made by lockdown proponents is to “follow the science.” This is another phrase intended to end further discussion. Scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable by observation. The scientific method is the process of testing falsifiable hypotheses by empiric observations that either support or reject them. The “science” is never settled and is never closed to challenge or discussion. What proponents of lockdowns mean by “follow the science” is that statements made by scientists should be accepted as axioms and that anyone who challenges these statements is an ignoramus or a conspiracy nut. An obvious problem exists when different scientists make conflicting statements. This problem is worse when the same scientist makes conflicting statements at different times.
As the debates over continuation or resumption of lockdowns continue, what is the current state of knowledge? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released their best estimate of symptomatic case fatality rates based on records of symptomatic cases, records of deaths, and antibody tests of wider populations. The symptomatic case fatality rate is the risk of death after developing symptomatic disease. This is different from the mortality rate, which is the number of deaths per hundred thousand. The symptomatic case fatality rates are 0.5 deaths per thousand symptomatic cases for those under 50 years of age, 2 per thousand for those age 50–64, and 13 per thousand for those over 65. As a frame of reference, the case fatality rate for the Spanish flu of 1918 was greater than 25 deaths per thousand cases. The existing scientific data for COVID-19 do not justify the suspension of civil liberties.
The debate will always return to the total deaths, which now exceed one hundred thousand for the United States. There is nothing extraordinary about the death toll from COVID-19. Total deaths in the US from all causes were 2,839,205 in 2018. The current mortality rate from COVID-19 in the US is 31.7. The total mortality rate in the US from all causes was 723.6 in 2018. The mortality rate in the US in 2018 was 163.6 for heart disease, 149.1 from cancer, 48.0 from unintentional injury (including motor vehicle accidents), 39.7 from chronic noninfectious lung disease (mostly chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD]), 37.1 from stroke, and 30.5 from Alzheimer’s disease. The mortality rate from suicide was 14.2 in 2018. These comparisons do not ignore the tragedy of deaths from COVID-19; the figures provide a frame of reference.
There is no evidence that lockdowns saved any lives. Different political entities have tried different severities of lockdown. Sweden tried a very liberal approach; their mortality rate from COVID-19 was lower compared with some other countries with more severe lockdowns such as Britain, Spain, Italy, and France. There is no clear relationship between severity of lockdown and mortality rates from COVID-19 for different states in the United States either. New York had one of the strictest lockdowns and has the highest mortality rate from COVID-19 of all states at 152.9. My own state of Texas had a relatively liberal lockdown and has a mortality rate from COVID-19 of 5.7. Texas had a mortality rate from motor vehicle accidents of 12.7 in 2018. More than twice as many people in Texas died from motor vehicle accidents in 2018 than have died from COVID-19. Each lockdown represents a different experiment in policy. If we “follow the science,” we will conclude that lockdowns had little or no beneficial effect and that policy should be set at local levels rather than state, national, or global levels.
Mandatory lockdowns should be ended. We have enough data for individuals to make decisions about whether they should stay in the safety of their homes or risk their lives by socializing. Young people are at the least risk from COVID-19 and have the most to lose by economic deprivation. The elderly are at the highest risk and have the least to lose by staying at home since many are retired or disabled. People who live in New York may very well make different choices from people in Texas.
In my home community of Lubbock, Texas, people have changed their behavior voluntarily. Some people wear masks and others do not. If you are afraid of those who do not, it is easy enough to avoid them. I take outdoor walks. During these walks, people wave to each other. We give each other space voluntarily, but nobody calls in a SWAT team if some child or pet breaches the capricious and arbitrary six-foot barrier. Calls for resuming lockdowns out of fear of second waves should be ignored. The lockdowns have dug a very deep economic hole, and we need to stop digging it deeper.