You are currently viewing our desktop site, do you want to visit our Mobile web app instead?
Join our mailing list to receive top business news every weekday morning.

Lockdowns haven’t proved they’re worth the havoc

And what about the second wave?
A pedestrian wearing a protective mask crosses a street in the Times Square area of New York, on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Image: Bloomberg

My junior and senior years in high school were 1968 and 1969; five decades later, I can still remember some of the main events of that era: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy, the bombing of Cambodia, the Apollo 8 spaceflight that orbited the moon, and Woodstock, which I pleaded with my parents to let me attend. (They said no.)

In my personal life, I remember playing on the basketball team, buying my first car, working in my family’s corner grocery store and wishing I had the nerve to ask certain girls out on a date. Here’s what I don’t remember: the pandemic of 1968-1969.

And yet there was one. It was called the H3N2 virus — less formally, the Hong Kong flu — and it took a significant toll. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 1 million people died worldwide, 100 000 in the US.

Conditions in large US cities sound similar to what they’re going through now, with overwhelmed hospital workers, millions of people getting sick and the elderly most likely to die.

When I first read about this pandemic, I could scarcely believe I had missed it. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the virus wreaked havoc in Europe, with French manufacturers suffering severe disruptions and West German garbage collectors burying the dead because there weren’t enough undertakers. In the US, the New York Times reported, the Citadel had to suspend classes because 165 cadets came down with the virus. Absenteeism in Los Angeles schools rose as high as 25%. In Boston, where I would soon be headed to college, university infirmaries were said to be filled with ill students. Tallulah Bankhead was a prominent victim of the virus.

A quick search confirms that the Times had covered the pandemic at the time. But I didn’t read the Times when I was in high school, and even if I had, I might well have missed the coverage. Every article was buried well inside the paper.

I did read the Boston Globe, but it wasn’t exactly trumpeting the news either. I found a humour piece by Art Buchwald (“For pretty young ladies, the HKF can be your protection from drunken bosses at Christmas parties”). The news that the virus was officially an epidemic ran in a short wire-service article on Page 5. On New Year’s Eve, the Globe predicted that the flu might keep people indoors. Or maybe not: “Flu or not, there are many who won’t let anything stand in the way of celebrating the holiday.”

From our current perspective, with shelter-in-place rules in much of the country, the most striking thing about the contemporaneous accounts was the absence of any discussion of lockdowns or even social distancing. I saw a few photos of nurses and office workers wearing masks, but that apparently wasn’t mandated either.

Even the occasional school closings were one-offs; not a single state ordered that schools or businesses be closed en masse. The virus swept across the world, causing tens of millions of people to become sick — and killing nearly three times the number of people who have died so far of Covid-19 — and the world’s chief mitigation effort was to race to make a vaccine. By the time one was ready, the pandemic had largely fizzled out.

This pandemic, of course, will be indelibly seared in the memory of those who lived through it. It is the biggest story since 9/11, with the ever-rising number of cases and deaths dominating the news. Children who are now wearing masks, doing schoolwork online and staying indoors will never forget it.

They’ll also no doubt remember the economic aftermath, which is likely to be horrific, with deflation and even a depression a possibility. On Tuesday, testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that “there is a risk of permanent damage” to the economy if the country remained locked down much longer.

All of which raises a question that has so far been relegated to a small handful of coronavirus contrarians: with all the businesses that are going to fail, and the tens of millions of people who will be unemployed — and the other negative consequences that come with forcing people to stay at home — will the lockdown have been worth it? Or would we have been better off doing something closer to what the country did in 1968 — yes, taking precautions like wearing masks, washing hands and protecting the elderly, but allowing businesses and schools to stay open while people went about their lives?

There are two issues here. The first is that quarantining an entire population is not some set-in-stone technique that has been used for decades to stem the spread of a virus. It was first proposed in 2006 by two government doctors — neither of them infectious disease specialists — after President George W Bush asked for a plan to combat pandemics.

Soon afterward, a paper was published calling for a national policy of sheltering-in-place. It swayed Bush. But four scientists who were infectious disease specialists also wrote a paper about the idea — a devastating critique. There was no science to support the notion that a national quarantine would halt the spread of infection, they wrote. It could increase the risk of infection for people living in close quarters. Closing theatres, malls, restaurants, stores and bars — not to mention church services and athletic events — would have “serious disruptive consequences.” Closing schools was not only impractical “but carries the possibility of a seriously adverse outcome.” And so on.

The scientists concluded:

Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted. Strong political and public health leadership to provide reassurance and to ensure that needed medical care services are provided are critical elements. If either is seen to be less than optimal, a manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe.

The second issue is that there is surprisingly little evidence that lockdowns work. Last week, a statistician named William M. Briggs, who is solidly in the anti-lockdown camp, wrote a blog post comparing countries that locked down with countries that didn’t. As of May 12, the US had 237 deaths per million people. Taiwan, a no-lockdown country, had 0.3 deaths per million. (The country has had a total of seven deaths.)

No-lockdown Sweden has had 347 deaths per million; lockdown Belgium, with a similar population, has had 763 deaths per million. Ethiopia, with a population of 109 million, had no lockdown — and a death rate of 0.04 per million.

“Death rates were more than highly variable; they were all over the place,” Briggs wrote of the data he had collected. “If lockdowns worked as advertised, we would not see such enormous variability in the death rates.”

“What should we conclude?” he added. “Strike that. What can we conclude? Only one thing: We cannot conclude that lockdowns worked.”

Let me point out one other fact about the pandemic of the late 1960s. Like many coronaviruses, the H3N2 virus came in waves. The last one began in the fall of 1969 and ended in early 1970. Assuming this coronavirus fades in the summer, there is a high likelihood that it will return with a vengeance in the fall and winter. If that happens, are you truly ready to lock down again?

I didn’t think so.

© 2020 Bloomberg

Get access to Moneyweb's financial intelligence and support quality journalism for only
R63/month or R630/year.
Sign up here, cancel at any time.

COMMENTS   20

You must be signed in to comment.

SIGN IN SIGN UP

The fact that the lockdown did not work, is going to become more and more obvious as time goes by, as hindsight will reveal. The real challenge will be for government(s) to accept this and be more flexible in making positive changes, rather than sticking to a (lockdown) model that does not work.

I agree but personally will be avoiding the high risk scenes even if they are legal : mass gatherings like church, aircraft, gym, movies, restaurants, public transport, etc

@Johan_Buys: Exactly what is required from each individual. A rational, common sense and balanced decision. You did not need a nanny state to tell you what to do, and when. You were made aware of the dangers and how to minimise the effects thereof. The state needs to provide education, guidance for the general population and prepare and give support for those who are not rational and adult enough to heed the common sense approach. Put simply, perhaps Darwin’s theory of evolution should be allowed to apply to those who are unable to heed such common sense advice.

I agree with Johan,
“open” your economy and does not mean you will get it back.

The article has some serious flaws, lots of hindsight perfect sciences of the less able.

Lockdowns worked for New Zealand and Australia. Cases are isolated and dealt with.

Sweden did not “lock down” and yet the traffic and economy too the same step down than other countries. Most people just did the precautionary thing.

Comparing the pandemic of the late 1960s to a 2020 air borne pathogen only an imbecile will do. How do you account for the exponential increase in air traffic in that risk assessment?

There was no other option but to lockdown in the face of the unknown risk.

The actual problem is countries did not lock down air travel early enough!

To be fair NZ and Aus are pretty unique

Both are Islands that can contain international movement quickly
Both have cultures of compliance and big middle class — so the advice handed down was largely followed.
Australia had a very “soft version” of lockdown, the main causalities were entertainment, dining, pubs, tourism.
Mining, manufacturing and construction all were allowed to continue
Both governments have deep pockets so monetary assistance has been very generous to both corporates and individuals
But even with all this the economics devastation has been big

Exceptions all over. Just shows how idiotic the article is,

with a generalized conclusion such as “lock-downs don’t work”..

Te problem was jsut countries did not shut down early enough, whim politicians could not make such decision, as a group think/confirmation was needed before any acted.

People of my age underwent military training and deployment in a war situation. We learnt that if you allow yourself to be pinned down by enemy small-arms fire, then you are making yourself a target for heavy mortar fire. You may think you re hiding, but you are actually compounding your problems.

We practised the “fire in movement” drills for weeks on end, and used it with great success if we drew enemy fire. The moral of the story is that we are soldiers in this life, all of us. We had to show courage under fire, stand up, move forward, and approach the enemy while he is aiming at you.

Now this WHO and the local government forces us to sit in our foxholes, pinned down by the virus, wearing our gas masks, lacking the rations that make life worth living. We should abandon the foxhole and move forward with fire in movement, to confront the virus before the virus overruns us in the trench anyway. This is the only way to live life.

What should I tell my fallen comrades when I meet them in the afterlife? I did not die an honourable death like you privileges guys. I sat in my foxhole, with my gas mask on, without rations for more than 60 days, because the National Command Council acted on a discredited reconnaissance report. The Command Council was immobilised by fear and stricken with infighting and inaction.

How life has changed. The cowards have taken control of the Command Centre from where they control and direct the brave now. I won’t be confined to my foxhole any longer. I am not going to obey a bunch of clueless cowards any longer. They can sit in their bunker if they want to. I have got a battle to fight and a life to live.

This is good, but a part of me must smile and think of those guys with guns in the US walking around. What are you going to do? Shoot the virus? ‘Murica!!!

True martial artists are pacifists. Only hooligans are warmongers. Ex-soldiers don’t walk around looking for fights, because they know that the enemy shoots back.

When people in the most secure country on earth, the USA, find it necessary to carry arms, then it says nothing about a foreign threat to their safety, but it says everything about their state of destructive mindlessness.

How was the lockdown supposed to work ? I understood at the beginning the idea was to buy time to get treatment facilities up to speed. It wasn’t about not catching the virus, it was about not all catching it at once, thus keeping the caseload manageable (as in Italy they didn’t). That part worked in the UK, if anything too well : in the rush to clear the decks at hospitals, people were offloaded to care homes prematurely. In SA, I’m still not clear what the position is with respect to capacity.

Now the principle seems to have morphed into ‘everyone must be prevented from catching it, regardless of the consequences’. This is what isn’t practical or effective – especially in SA, not least with social grant queues that last days – and comes at an enormous cost. The unions seem to be driving that approach when it comes to relaxing the restrictions on work, though mortality is lower among people of working age.

All will be revealed when Ms Zuma’s spokesperson addresses us at19.00 today!

Yep.

Imagine she is adamant that smokers are more likely to need ventilators should they get infected hence the ban on selling cigarettes. The intention being nobody smokes.

Hahhaaaa. What nonsense. Nobody stopped smoking and everybody knows that.

Should they not have bought more ventilators? They had time? A fraction of the billions in taxes from selling legal cigarettes could have been used and afterwords it could have been donated to the ill fated NHI.

That half of this NCC even entertains a discussion on it shows the level of understanding. Scary.

A smoker with an underlying respiratory problem will not recover in the 8 weeks of lock down. Nor will a smoker who just started smoking already have those symptoms.

If anything the underworld cigarettes could do more harm than a regulated cigarette.

This is an excellent example of how a government uses its monopoly on violence through the police force and the army, to compensate for its own failures in service delivery. People have to be locked down because the state is not prepared. Never does it cross their minds to simply allow the free market, the individuals, the entrepreneurs, to come forward with solutions.

The ignorant officials go deeper into regressive, harmful policies when they use their monopoly on the making of laws to further decimate the private industry. The government protects its monopolies by destroying their competition in the free market.

If the consumers agreed with the determinations of the minister when she banned the sale of alcohol and tobacco, then these products should become cheaper as the supply engulfs the demand. The reality is the opposite. It is certainly a vote of no confidence in the minister when consumers pay 5 times more for tobacco and alcohol products under lockdown. These prices are sending a message to the minister and that message is the middle finger.

This experiment at Central Planning will be as disastrous as all the previous ones. More than a hundred people will die due to the effects of lockdown, for every person who dies due to covid, and these preventable deaths can be blamed squarely on the Central Command Council.

The article is spot on!

I’m baffled by the incredible acceptance factor world wide with the lockdown.

Governments almost never agree so easily on a “policy” across many countries. Yet almost every county in the world thinks that locking down is the only way to fight the virus. Someone at the WHO must have done a selling job of note to convince everyone that this is an appropriate course of action.

I think leaders worldwide should admit they were “wrong” , take the political “pain” that comes with that , but still do the right thing and stop the lockdowns !!!!

It won’t be the politicians that apologize, but the voters that need to elect other officials.

They said ‘follow the science’! But then pulled lock down rules out of their thumbs, with no science for our particular situation. Like copy and paste from other nations, who also didn’t follow the science.

It will be great if moneyweb can do a follow up on the article “the elephant in the room”

The whole thing was centered around the death rate (21% at the time)

That elephant is considerably smaller now at 13% and will continue to go down as known cases are recorded with outcomes.

The amount of people that had the virus and never tested must be huge ! That would make this virus a little more deadly than a cold , that’s it.

We are collectively paying a very big price to “cure the common cold”

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

Well said Sensei – I cannot agree more with your articles here. I was also a 69er and did my military training at a 3 SAI at Potchefstroom. Thereafter I did 10,3months camps on the border with my Northern Transvaal Regiment.

Yes, ‘’fire and movement drills’’ for months – and up North. Today I wonder, what It had to be like to go ‘’underground’’ – nkonto ezizwe style, and I think that is how the Government wants to fight the Chinese Sneeze.

I came to realize at a very early age that fighting communist- trained and equipped guerrillas was not for the squeamish. Fighting the Chinese Sneeze will take guts, but no glory!
I have seen and witnessed a couple of financial ‘’shocks and scares’’ in my FX Treasury years, locally and abroad, and I think I have made up my mind about it.

The biggest crashes I saw wasn’t due to worrisome imbalances that were lying over the forecast horizon – the ones that the market participants ‘’foresaw’, rarely happened. If a stock-market bulge is perceived to be the precursor of a crash, speculators and investors will start selling out earlier, hence the nascent bubble and crash are avoided.
But, the sudden eruptions of fear and euphoria are phenomena that nobody anticipates. The horrendous decline in stocks on ‘’Black Monday’’ came out of the dark – just like the Chinese Sneeze!

Ayn Rand and Ronald Regean had been among the few who had predicted decades before that the USSR would ultimately collapse from within.

TB causes 50,000 plus, deaths in South Africa p/a. TB is an infectious disease transmitted via sneezing and coughing. (Familiar?). Considering that Covid19 haven’t killed 500 people yet. The Lockdown is disproportionate at the most economically devastating scale imaginable. If saving lives is the objective, TB level numbers are completely understandable. The full scale of the Employment devastation that this caused, will only be known within the months to come. But it will be in the Millions and the Business closures in the Thousands. And SA was an economy that could least afford Job Losses. Consistently, the choices that are made fails a basic test of common sense. So, we spend money which we don’t have, to be repaid by Salaries and Businesses that Lockdown is closing.

End of comments.

LATEST CURRENCIES  

USD / ZAR
GBP / ZAR
EUR / ZAR

Podcasts

NEWSLETTERS WEB APP SHOP PORTFOLIO TOOL TRENDING CPD HUB

Follow us:

Search Articles:Advanced Search
Click a Company: