KOLB: The Coronavirus Lockdown Was Justified To Protect The American People

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Charles Kolb Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the medical experts made predictions about the coronavirus with the best evidence they had at the time and the shutdowns were necessary in order to protect American lives. You can find a counterpoint here, where Geoffrey Lawrence, a senior policy fellow at the Reason Foundation, argues that the shutdowns implemented to stop the spread of coronavirus may end up causing far more deaths and economic damage than the virus itself.

Proving counterfactuals is virtually impossible. Here’s a current example that is driving many discussions (and protests) around the country: “If we didn’t have these draconian lockdowns, coronavirus infections would ultimately peter out on their own (like the annual flu), and we wouldn’t now have over 26 million unemployed Americans plus trillions of dollars of new debt burdening American taxpayers.”

After all, coronavirus infection rates have been relatively low, many infected people are asymptomatic and most people recover quickly. According to lockdown skeptics and critics, even though this new coronavirus is highly contagious, its harm has been overstated, and the enormous economic and human damage it has caused has been unnecessary and avoidable.

Unfortunately, life is not quite that simple. We’ll never know what would have happened if we’d just continued life as usual through February, March and April while waiting to see if “herd immunity” arose or whether a quick, off-the-shelf medical fix emerged. Instead, we emphasized remaining indoors, keeping six feet apart when outside and working to “bend the curve” of daily infections and deaths.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson famously pooh-poohed lockdowns until, after continuing to shake every British hand in sight, he landed in the hospital and nearly died. If offered a redo, there’s no question that Johnson would have imposed a nationwide lockdown far sooner.

This global coronavirus pandemic is an extraordinary, black-swan occurrence, one that also carries considerable uncertainty about its origins, complexity, antibody and immunity implications, reaction to temperature, likelihood of recurring and mutating, and cure. Put yourself in the shoes of elected policymakers who are not virologists or epidemiologists. What should they have done differently when they began receiving increasingly alarming details about the virus’ lethal nature and how quickly it could spread?

Public policy decisions should always involve analysis of the costs and benefits associated with various options. With this major pandemic, most of our federal, state and local policymakers made the right decision: they consulted and heeded the experts. Lockdowns and shelter-in-place policies followed.

Today, many of those experts are criticized for getting the modeling wrong: instead of two million projected American deaths, the next estimate was 100,000 to 240,000 deaths. This range was subsequently lowered again to approximately 60,000 fatalities.

The naysayers contend that these changing estimates prove that we can’t trust experts; what do they know, after all, when their models and projections were consistently wrong?

Contrary to this argument, however, is another counterfactual: if we hadn’t imposed the lockdowns, total fatalities would have been far higher.

Clearly, the model creates a muddle.

As we know from the 2008-2009 Great Recession, Wall Street relied on economic models that assumed housing prices would never decline. When home prices dropped, a major recession ensued.

The lesson learned then, and today, is that models are only as good as the assumptions and data that inform them. But this lesson should not lead to the conclusion that we should throw out models as imperfect and scorn their creators.

When confronted with a life-threatening pandemic featuring uncertain, multiple variables, we must make informed judgments given the best available expert evidence and modeling available. As facts change, so will the assumptions and the modeling. When we’re effectively flying blind and battling a dangerous invisible enemy, models based on the best available evidence are our most reliable guides.

After-the-fact blame games are pointless: we need precisely this type of informed public policymaking, risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. Models help frame an overall strategic approach (testing and mitigation) which is then followed by tactics (lockdowns, social distancing, experimental treatments, antibody testing, vaccine development, etc.).

We Americans are often impatient, highly pragmatic and, as the late Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter observed nearly 60 years ago, almost congenitally skeptical of experts. We want immediate results: more answers, not more questions.

The lockdowns were necessary and proper. Now, with some infection and mortality curves finally bending down, the issue is how long those lockdowns should last. When do we reopen our economy and society?

We hear practical refrains about avoiding a cure that’s worse than the disease. After all, driving cars, riding subways and crossing streets all entail daily risks. Resolving these tradeoffs will also require informed judgment, risk assessments and cost-benefit considerations.

As we balance these health and economic risks, it is still essential to rely on modelling, because other approaches too often blend conjecture and hope.

It’s not yet time to retire the experts. We still need them.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House