Scientific Debate Over Lockdown Measures

Confronting COVID-19 while maintaining public trust has proven difficult and divisive
December 31, 2020 Updated: January 2, 2021

In March 2020, officials called for a lockdown across most of the United States and Canada due to COVID-19. Schools closed, businesses were shuttered, and public life came to a screeching halt.

The initial plan was to slow the spread but this timeline eventually stretched into several weeks, and then months of restrictions.

The stated goal of these restrictive measures is to contain a potentially lethal illness until the threat of COVID-19 is eradicated. But there are painful side effects to this strategy: suicide and mental health problems, drug overdoses, domestic abuse, the destruction of small businesses, unemployment, hunger, and poverty.

Yet medical experts and policymakers say, despite the pain we’ve endured so far, even greater sacrifice is necessary, as the constant rise in COVID-19 case numbers confirm.

Despite the suffering and growing pushback against such measures, lawmakers say science and the opinions of top medical experts guides their orders. Lockdowns, while painful, are necessary for the public good.

But many health experts promote a radically different path.

The Great Barrington Declaration, for example, expresses “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies.” Written by medical experts from Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford, it is signed by 12,785 public health scientists, and 38,463 medical practitioners.

Lockdown advocates maintain that stay-at-home orders save lives, but the Declaration argues that these policies are “producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health.” According to this group of public health experts, keeping socially restrictive measures in place “will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.”

Against the Herd

Instead of lockdowns, the Great Barrington Declaration advocates for a return to life as normal, before masks were seen outside an operating room and people were able to gather with less than six feet between them. Their aim is something called “herd immunity.” The idea is that if enough healthy people catch the virus, they can develop an immunity to it, and pass these acquired antibodies to the weaker members of humanity’s herd. Public health experts behind the Declaration say their plan would give healthy people their lives back, and would actually protect those at highest risk.

“The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk,” states the Declaration. “We call this Focused Protection.”

So why don’t more policymakers consider the recommendations of these experts and scientists? One reason is uncertainty and risk avoidance. We still don’t know how long natural immunity to the virus will last. Natural immunity is often temporary with coronaviruses, which is also why vaccines have limited value for these diseases. Another reason is censorship. All throughout the pandemic, numerous doctors and scientists have come forward with insights and evidence that challenge the conventional approach. However, social media has routinely censored or scrubbed much of the public testimony. Once viral videos are now impossible to find.

Tech companies say they silence the stray crackpots who spew false claims about COVID-19 in order to prevent “imminent physical harm.” But what if some of these renegade ideas have merit, and what if the number of experts behind them is considerable?

Scientific journals add to the confusion. In October, an open letter  published in The Lancet speaks of a “scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic.” This supposed consensus views the herd immunity idea as a “dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence,” and insists the only way forward is to keep up the restrictions.

“We cannot afford distractions that undermine an effective response; it is essential that we act urgently based on the evidence,” states the Lancet letter.

However, herd immunity supporters can point to real world evidence that lessening restrictions may actually be healthier for society overall. Sweden was credited early on with keeping case numbers low despite avoiding lockdown rules that have decimated personal and national economies in other countries.

South Dakota has so far avoided lockdowns. In a letter published on December 7 in the Wall Street Journal, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem explains that, although she’s been labeled “reckless,” the COVID case numbers in her state have been much lower than in several states that enforced socially restrictive measures.

“The state hasn’t issued lockdowns or mask mandates. We haven’t shut down businesses or closed churches,” writes Noem. “In fact, our state has never even defined what an ‘essential business’ is. That isn’t the government’s role.”

South Dakota has since seen a rise in COVID cases, but that rise has not come at the same social and economic expense to the state that it has to other states with strict lockdown measures.

Of course, such decisions seem dangerous to some experts. In an article published in The Lancet on October 24 by the journal’s editor-in-chief, Dr. Richard Horton, Sweden’s strategy isn’t as successful as the herd immunity crowd suggests. Horton says that, due to Sweden’s no lockdown policy, deaths in care homes have been especially severe, and outbreaks in hospitals are common.

“Herd immunity has not been achieved. Infections are rising once again,” Horton wrote. “And many Swedish scientists believe that too many citizens have needlessly died from a policy that didn’t take the consequences of COVID-19 seriously.”

Horton says he understands the allure of a herd immunity approach in a population struggling with quarantine-fatigue. But he warns that governments who take this road will face higher infection rates, and overwhelmed hospitals.

Horton also worries that the promotion of strategies that stray from conventional measures puts the public’s delicate trust at risk.

“Scientists are no longer seen as providing impartial, independent advice to government,” Horton writes. “They are seen as being responsible for crashing economies, driving up unemployment, and ruining livelihoods.”

Follow the Science?

So how do you find the truth among conflicting perspectives and the systematic censorship of dissenting voices? Health experts and policymakers give lip service to science, but does another force have an even greater influence?

A November 2020 editorial from the British Medical Journal blames policymakers for selecting only the studies that suit their plans and suppressing the ones that don’t. Researchers write that, all over the world, “people, policies, and procurement are being corrupted by political and commercial agendas.”

“Politicians often claim to follow the science, but that is a misleading oversimplification. Science is rarely absolute,” researchers wrote. “Politicisation of science was enthusiastically deployed by some of history’s worst autocrats and dictators, and it is now regrettably commonplace in democracies.”

The BMJ article points to specific examples of corruption in the UK’s pandemic response, but it says a similar corrupting force can be found all over the world.

“Government appointees are able to ignore or cherry-pick science … and indulge in anti-competitive practices that favor their own products and those of friends and associates,” states the article.

Lockdowns are but one bone of contention in the conventional COVID response. Another is treatment: specifically with the drug hydroxychloroquine. Soon after President Donald Trump highlighted doctors using it to treat COVID-19, a number of medical experts came forward to discredit it.

The backlash was widely promoted, but much of it proved false. However, suppression of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as a treatment for COVID-19 has persisted.

Despite some states and hospitals banning or restricting the use of HCQ, many doctors still consider the drug to be a key weapon in the fight against COVID-19. One is Dr. Peter McCullough, a clinical cardiologist and professor at the Texas A&M School of Medicine. McCullough published guidance on early treatment of COVID-19 in the American Journal of Medicine in July 2020 as part of a U.S./Italian collaboration. He says a hydroxychloroquine cocktail is his primary treatment.

And he’s hardly alone. In a November 30 interview with Australia’s SKYNews, McCullough said that HCQ is “the most widely used therapeutic to treat COVID-19 in the world, hands down.”

“It’s been on the market for 65 years. I’ve prescribed it for 30 years for systemic lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and to treat and prevent malaria. It’s a very safe and effective medication. In India and Greece, it’s in their guidelines to use it first line,” McCullough said.

But health officials urge caution for what some believe to be an unproven and potentially dangerous treatment. The American Medical Association (AMA) has instructed doctors to stop prescribing HCQ for COVID. On October 30, a proposal was submitted to the AMA to rescind its demand with evidence that the help HCQ provides far outweighs any risk. But the Association rejected the proposal.

McCullough believes there has never really been any controversy about whether hydroxychloroquine works. The controversy is in the public policy that guides its use. He says that although the medicine is widely prescribed for COVID-19 all over the world, in certain countries—such as the United States, Canada, U.K, and Australia—patients suffer because doctors are discouraged from prescribing any home treatment.

“The public health approach is just about wearing masks, staying at home, sheltering in place, and waiting for a vaccine. It must be part of the master plan. But for people who get sick, it obviously doesn’t work.” McCullough said. “So the population is now so hungry for a vaccine just to move on. But the means don’t justify the ends in my view.”

The BMJ article takes no position on lockdowns, and it expresses concern that hydroxychloroquine was “hastily approved” in the U.S. But it carries a warning that resonates with much of our understanding and policy COVID-19: when good science is suppressed for political or financial gain, people die.

“COVID-19 has unleashed state corruption on a grand scale, and it is harmful to public health,” states the BMJ article. “Politicians and industry are responsible for this opportunistic embezzlement. So too are scientists and health experts. The pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency—a time when it is even more important to safeguard science.”

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner