The days of COVID lockdowns may be temporarily behind us, but a multinational academic team has conducted a meta-analysis of government pandemic actions and found them to be “a global policy failure of gigantic proportions,” often driven by state and media-sponsored fear campaigns.
Their findings, published in a book titled “Did Lockdowns Work? The Verdict on Covid Restrictions,” are based on a global meta-analysis that examined nearly 20,000 studies to determine the benefits and drawbacks of health mandates, including lockdowns, school closures, and mask mandates. According to economist Steve Hanke, one of the co-authors, one of the factors that drove countries into a state of panic and draconian policies was reliance on mortality rate models from sources like the Imperial College of London (ICL) that generated “fantasy figures” showing that millions of deaths could be prevented by imposing crippling lockdowns on society as a whole.
“Prior to the outbreak of COVID, most countries had some plan to address pandemics,” Hanke said, “but after the ‘figures’ from the Imperial College of London were published, those plans were thrown out the window in a panic. In any case, the same pattern was followed: flawed modeling, dire predictions that missed the mark, and no lessons learned,” he said. “The same mistakes were repeated over and over without being questioned.”
Hanke is a professor of economics and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. The other co-authors of the research are Jonas Herby, a special advisor at the Center for Political Studies in Copenhagen, and Lars Jonung, a professor of economics at Lund University in Sweden.
Although the meta-analysis examined thousands of studies, only 22 of them contained useful data for the research. The report focused on mortality rates and lockdown policies in 2020.
“This study is the first comprehensive evaluation of research on the effectiveness of mandatory restrictions on mortality,” Jonung stated. “It demonstrates that lockdowns were a failed promise. They had negligible health effects but devastating economic, social, and political costs for society.”
According to Hanke, the ICL models predicted that lockdowns would prevent between 1.7 million and 2.2 million deaths in the United States. However, the meta-analysis indicates that lockdowns prevented between 4,345 and 15,586 deaths in the United States. This fits into a pattern of exaggerated predictions by the ICL that health officials were either unaware of or overlooked, he said.
A Long History of Fantasy Figures
“There is a long history of fantasy figures generated by the epidemiological models used by the Imperial College of London,” Hanke said. “The terrible track record began with the UK foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001, where the Imperial College models predicted that the daily incidence of 420 cases would reach a peak. But at that point, the number of incidents had already peaked at just over 50 and was declining.”
In 2002, the ICL predicted that up to 150,000 people in the UK would die from mad cow disease; in 2019, the BBC reported that the number of deaths in the UK from mad cow disease was 177.
In 2005, Neil Ferguson, who led the ICL, predicted up to 200 million deaths from H5N1 bird flu, which had at that time killed 65 people in Asia; according to the WHO, between 2003 and 2023, 458 people worldwide died from H5N1.
The ICL’s habit of being a “crying wolf” didn’t stop the BBC from relying on its data to warn its 468 million listeners worldwide, in 42 languages, once COVID-19 struck.
“Perhaps the Imperial College models are ideal fear-generating machines for politicians and governments craving more power,” Hanke said. “H.L. Mencken long ago hit the nail on the head when he wrote that ‘the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins.'”
While there were several U.S. states that never issued lockdown orders, including Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Arkansas, Sweden was the rare national exception that refrained from imposing mandatory lockdowns. American governors who refused to shut down their states were heavily criticized in the media, which predicted that this would cause mass deaths.
In April 2020, under the Trump administration, Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General, criticized Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida for lifting the lockdown in his state, stating on NBC’s “Today” show that federal guidelines should be seen as a “national stay-at-home order.”
At the time, Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that, regarding lifting closures, “the tension between federally mandated versus states’ rights to do what they want is something that I don’t want to get into. But if you look at what’s going on in this country, I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that.”
Left-leaning states like California and New York maintained their draconian rules longer than most other states. New York City even implemented a system of vaccination passports that denied access to public venues such as restaurants, bars, theaters, and museums for the unvaccinated. While the federal system in America, which placed healthcare authority in the hands of states, prevented the federal government from locking down the entire country, President Joe Biden issued vaccine and mask mandates after taking office, which were ultimately declared unlawful by the Supreme Court.
In Sweden, however, protection against such health mandates is enshrined in the constitution, known as the Instrument of Government (Regeringsform). This document states: “Everyone is protected in their dealings with public institutions against being deprived of personal liberty. All Swedish citizens are also guaranteed freedom of movement within the Realm and freedom to leave the Realm.” This law allows exceptions only for convicted individuals and conscripted military personnel, and Swedish law does not permit the government to declare a state of emergency in peacetime.
“Also significant in the Swedish COVID case was the chief public health officer, Dr. Anders Tegnell,” Hanke said. “His views on public health were the antithesis of those held by the COVID Czar in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci.”
In an interview in September 2020, Tegnell described lockdowns as “using a hammer to kill a fly” and commented on the rush by almost every other country to impose them, saying, “It was as if the world had gone mad.” Sweden also did not impose mask mandates, while at the other extreme, Australia arrested citizens who went outside without masks or gathered outdoors, and Austria made refusing the COVID vaccine a punishable offense. The New York Times referred to Sweden at the time as a “pariah state” and “the cautionary world story.”
Some of the differences between modeled and actual results are due to what Hanke calls the “hot stove effect.”
“If someone is warned that a stove is hot, they voluntarily keep their hands off the stove,” he said, referring to evidence that people, when credibly warned, tend to take precautions without being forced.
A movement to centralize authority
And yet, instead of allowing individuals to make their own health decisions, most governments were united in compelling populations to follow behaviors that had not been recommended during pandemics up to that point. This year, 194 countries came together to negotiate a global pandemic agreement and changes to the International Health Regulations (IHR) that centralize the pandemic response within the WHO.
There is little in the pandemic agreement or the IHR changes about civil liberties and personal protection against state abuse, as outlined in the Swedish Instrument of Government, such as the right to freedom of speech, travel, and association, and nothing about the right to refuse experimental medicines. Instead, the negotiations focus on concentrating power and policy in the hands of a finite number of health officials in Geneva.
This includes centralization of medical supply chains, policies for pandemic response, and coordinated suppression of “misinformation.” While countries around the world, including the United States, are moving down this path, some question whether it is wise to centralize control, while the states and countries that responded to COVID with the least harm were the exception rather than the rule.
“Central planning is based on what Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek called the ‘pretense of knowledge’,” Hanke said. “The outcomes usually end in a river of tears. It is often wiser to proceed through decentralized experiments than with a global plan.”
Furthermore, government policies are often one-dimensional; they usually enforce a single objective, such as trying to stop the spread of a virus, while ignoring side effects and collateral damage. The response to COVID is a textbook example of this.
“The track record of public health officials is quite poor,” Hanke said. “The Covid policies represent one of the greatest policy blunders of modern times.”