A new book argues lockdowns during the pandemic were “a failure.” But in response CNN published an opinion piece disagreeing — written by physician/infectious disease expert Kent Sepkowitz from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York — who argues “You bet it was worth it.”
[Authors Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean] consider the lockdown a single activity stretched across the entire pandemic; in contrast, I would distinguish the initial lockdown, which was crucial, from the off-and-on lockdowns as therapies, vaccines and overall care improved. There is an argument to be made that these were not anywhere near as effective… One only had to work in health care in New York City to see the difference between early 2020, when the explosion of cases overwhelmed the city, versus later in 2020 when an effective therapy had been identified, supplies and diagnostic testing had been greatly improved (though still completely inadequate) and the makeshift ICUs and emergency rooms had been set in place. It was still a nightmare to be sure, but it was a vastly more organized nightmare.
The “short-term benefits” at the start of the pandemic are simple to characterize: Every infection that was delayed due to the lockdowns was a day to the good, a day closer to the release of the mRNA vaccines in December 2020, a less-hectic day for the health care workers, a day for clinical trials to mature. Therefore, the authors’ statement that lockdowns “were a mistake that should not be repeated” because they had no “purpose other than keeping hospitals from being overrun in the short-term” is to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the day-to-day work that was being done. Most disturbing to me about this assessment and the others that have come along are the minimal mention of the death and debility the infection caused. A reminder for those who have forgotten just how brutal the pandemic was: Worldwide there have been 7 million deaths. In the U.S., there have been more than a million deaths, millions have some post-infection debility and many health care workers remain profoundly demoralized. [By these figures the U.S., with 4.2% of the world’s population, had 14% of Covid fatalities.]
In this context, many of the outcomes of concern listed by Nocera and McLean — suicidal thoughts in teens, alcoholism and drug use increases, violence — are as easily explained by this staggering death toll as by the cabin fever brought on by lockdowns. Once again: About 1 out of every 350 Americans died in the Covid-19 pandemic. Another way to consider the impact of so many deaths is examination of life expectancy. Of note, life expectancy in the U.S. fell in 2020 (1.8 years) and 2021 (0.6 years), the sharpest drop since the 1920s; per the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 74% of the drop was attributed to Covid-19… To fall more than two years so precipitously requires the deaths of many in their 30s and 40s and 50s, as occurred with the first year of the pandemic.