Are Lockdowns Worse Than the Pandemic? A Nonsense Question

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

Are lockdowns actually worse than the pandemic itself? So many government decisions have been shaped by this question over the last 18 months, at least in theory.

That so many different countries have had wildly different responses to the pandemic, and had similarly different degrees of success with dealing with it, reveals that the answer to the question, is unclear. That’s not ideal, as it affects everyone in the world right now.

Thankfully, an extensive study, published today in the British Medical Journal, looked directly at the available information, from all over the world, and assessed whether the societal ‘cure’ (of lockdowns) really was worse than the disease (the pandemic).

They aren’t. According to the current data, lockdowns do way less harm than the pandemic itself, at least in the short term. But that’s a given, because there haven’t been any long-term effects yet. We haven’t had time for them. The pandemic is still happening!

In any case, the study concluded that, while lockdowns do indeed have many negative consequences, countries with tougher lockdowns earlier on faired a lot better than those who were more lax or blasé about the pandemic, in terms of the mortality rates for their populations.

You’d expect that, no doubt. But this doesn’t consider the mental health impacts of lockdown. This is typically the stick used by anti-lockdown types to beat those in favour of them when they want to claim the moral high ground. Lockdowns are bad for people’s mental health. Therefore, we shouldn’t have them. Is there any merit to this claim?

Let’s be clear; nobody is saying that lockdowns aren’t detrimental to mental health. Being cut off from family and friends, children being kept away from school, concerns about finances due to the economic impact and loss of work, all these and more can, and will, have detrimental effects on mental health. Therefore, lockdowns are bad, right?

It’s not that simple. The study in question did attempt to take mental health consequences into account, and, where possible, found that countries with stronger lockdown strategies faired better there, too. But there are some caveats here.

Firstly, they looked at things like ‘excess deaths’, and found that there wasn’t any indication of a surge in lockdown-induced suicides. While there is undoubtedly a connection, mental health problems and suicide rates aren’t the same thing. Most mental health problems don’t result in suicide. And even then, tracking suicide rates during a pandemic, when the medical infrastructure is completely preoccupied and the death rate is higher anyway, is a tricky prospect.

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But this problem is one that gets to the heart of the matter, highlighting an issue that the study emphasised specifically, which is that, when you look at the negative impacts on mental health, it’s very difficult to disentangle the consequences of the lockdown from the consequences of the pandemic itself.

Leaving aside some of the more callous arguments I’ve been exposed to (like “Why should we curtail our freedoms for a disease that only affects 1% of the population?”, which suggests that over 700,000 deaths in the UK alone is a reasonable price for being able to go to the pub whenever you like), in my experience, lockdown sceptics suggest we have a simple choice; life under the restrictions of lockdown, or normal life but with more people getting sick. But this choice is a false one. The real choice is life with a pandemic and lockdown, or life with a pandemic without lockdown.

Frankly, the assumption that people would just carry on as normal in the presence of a pandemic is farcical, and completely ignorant of how humans actually work. The study even notes the fact that many people were staying away from others and keeping children home from school before lockdown rules were enforced. And even now, post ‘freedom day’ in England, countless people are still distancing and wearing masks, even though the rules saying they have to are no longer in place. This all stems from one simple, undeniable fact, but one which is weirdly overlooked very often when arguing that lockdowns do more harm than good.

The vast majority of people don’t want to get sick and/or die.

The idea that we, as a population, could carry on normal (economically productive) life in the presence of a deadly pandemic is laughable. You’d still get people avoiding work, staying away from crowds and shops, keeping children home from school, keeping their distance from friends and family, and experiencing all the mental health consequences of these. We could easily end up with many of the results of lockdown, despite the absence of lockdowns. Only, without lockdown, there’d be more uncertainty, less unity and coordination, more people mixing and spreading the virus, more economic hardship with no financial support systems in place. These are all sure-fire ways to increase people’s stress levels, and thus make the mental health of the population even worse.

In fairness, maybe over time we’ll learn more about the effects of all this, and discover that lockdowns have had some profoundly negative consequences that we didn’t anticipate, and aren’t seeing yet. I don’t personally feel that’s likely, but time will tell. Regardless, it’s a conversation for another day, in any case.

But the main takeaway at the moment is this; we’ve never had the choice of lockdown or pandemic. The pandemic is here, no matter how we feel about it. We can either put official measures in place to deal with it, or we can just surrender to it. But even if governments opted for the latter, it wouldn’t mean that everyone in the country just carries on as normal as if the virus wasn’t there.

You’d get a diverse range of reactions, sure. Some would ignore the danger, others would go all out to protect themselves from the world, some would help others, some would exploit the situation for personal gain, and so on. It would also depend on the country and culture of the people involved; someone living in the suburbs of London will have very different options for how to respond to a pandemic than someone in a rural Indian community.

But even so, the pandemic was always going to cause considerable harm to our society, and the people who make it up, whether we locked down or not. Suggesting that life could have carried on as normal in the absence of lockdown rules is to fundamentally misunderstand human nature.

Dean Burnett’s latest book Psycho-Logical, all about how mental health problems work in the brain, is available now.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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