Three Years In, How Did the Lockdowns Go?
From the Brownstone Institute
Three years ago this month, a very small group of highly guarded ruling-class people from the UK, US, and Europe, were gathering to figure out how to lock down the country and the world. They held Zoom meetings and went to burner phones and plotted how to convince Trump to betray his own instincts.
And this week three years ago, the World Health Organization sponsored a trip to Wuhan, China, and other cities to discover how they did it: how they utterly crushed a pathogen by smashing the liberties of the people. The WHO’s report was glowing: it worked and should be repeated the world over.
None of the rest of us knew this was happening. They knew what was coming but we did not.
The great experiment that had never been tried before. They would shut down the world economy in anticipation of a vaccine that was supposed to end the pandemic. And then, they figured, the whole world would be in debt to Big Pharma forever and we would be permanently acculturated to depend on them for everything. Then we go for vaccine passports and central-bank digital currencies and Big Tech too would ride high forever.
What a plan!
There were some missteps. It turned out that the vaccine didn’t work like it was supposed to. Whoops. And there was another big failure. The lockdowns didn’t actually stop the virus. Not only that, they utterly crushed everything we call society, leaving not only economic destruction in their wake but also cultural collapse and awful public health.
The US was an interesting case because we have a federal system, meaning that even now, individual states can go their own way. Despite everything, the CDC did not have the power to enforce its edict. The Trump administration declared that “all indoor and outdoor venues where people congregate should be closed,” but there was no means to make that stick, much less script the pace of reopening.
South Dakota, for example, simply defied the federal government. Georgia opened up after a few weeks even against the objections from Trump personally. Florida came next and then Texas. The rest of the “red states” fell like dominos, each going back to normal over the course of the year, while “blue states” stayed closed as a matter of principle: they would follow the edicts of Anthony Fauci and then the Biden administration no matter what.
This provided a fascinating test of the states. There were 50 states and 50 different plans for mitigation. Some deployed “stay-at-home” orders and some did not. Some forced people indoors, some outdoors, and some not at all. Some kept forced masking in place for a long time and others made it voluntary. Some scrapped pandemic plans early and some held on to the bitter end, even keeping schools closed.
Oxford University had been tracking these mitigation strategies throughout and came up with an index. And we have seemingly endless piles of data on health outcomes, in addition to economic and demographic data on businesses, employment, income, and migrations too. We have enough now to make some strong assessments on what works and what does not.
Now we have an extremely robust study that looks at all these variables and sizes up the effect in a range of areas. The study is “Freedom Wins: States with Less Restrictive COVID Policies Outperformed States with More Restrictive COVID Policies” by Joel M. Zinberg, Brian Blase, Eric Sun, and Casey B. Mulligan, as published by the Paragon Health Institute.
It’s hardly the first: Brownstone offers a list of 400 more on every aspect of the pandemic response. But it is enormously valuable because it accumulates so much data and experience and presents them in a clear way.
Here is the summary:
“Our results show that more severe government interventions, as measured by the Oxford index, did not significantly improve health outcomes (age-adjusted and pre-existing-condition adjusted COVID mortality and all-cause excess mortality) in states that imposed them relative to states that imposed less restrictive measures. But the severity of the government response was strongly correlated with worse economic (increased unemployment and decreased GDP) and educational (days of in-person schooling) outcomes and with a worse overall COVID outcomes score that equally weighted the health, economic, and educational outcomes.
“We also used Census data on domestic migration to examine whether government pandemic measures affected state-to-state migration decisions. We compared the net change in migration into or out of states in the pandemic period between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2022, with the migration patterns over five pre-pandemic years. There was a substantial increase in domestic migration during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic trends. There was also a significant negative correlation between states’ government response measures and states’ net pandemic migration, suggesting that people fled states with more severe lockdowns and moved to states with less severe measures.”
They did a detailed study comparing Florida and California in particular:
“Florida relaxed lockdowns after a short time, resulting in a low Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Index score, whereas California imposed strict and prolonged lockdowns and had one of the highest index scores in the nation. Yet the two states had roughly equal health outcomes scores, suggesting little, if any, health benefit from California’s severe approach. But California suffered far worse economic and education outcomes. And both states had substantial increases in their pre-existing domestic migration patterns. California’s severe lockdowns seemed to elicit a jump in its already high out-migration, while Florida experienced a significant in-migration increase during the pandemic as compared with pre-pandemic trends. Florida’s commitment to keeping schools open was likely a significant factor in attracting people from around the country.”
“Severe government measures did little to lower COVID-19 deaths or excess mortality from all causes. Indeed, government measures appear to have increased excess mortality from non-COVID health conditions. Yet the severity of these measures negatively affected economic performance as measured by unemployment and GDP and education as measured by access to in-person schooling. States such as Florida and countries such as Sweden that took more restrained approaches and focused protection efforts on the most medically vulnerable populations had superior economic and educational outcomes at little or no health cost. The evidence suggests that in future pandemics policymakers should avoid severe, prolonged, and generalized restrictions and instead carefully tailor government responses to specific disease threats, encouraging state and local governments to balance the health benefits against the economic, educational, health, and social costs of specific response measures.”
Some interesting charts from the study include this state-by-state comparison, with South Dakota at top left and New York at the bottom right.
This is the evidence we have based on the data we have. It is sadly not surprising. The lockdowns did not improve health outcomes. They did devastate economic outcomes. And economics is part of health which in turn is a reflection of the quality of life. The same results pertain however we shuffle the data: adjusting by age, adjusting by population, adjusting by population density. The conclusion is completely undeniable. Lockdowns were a disaster and they achieved nothing in terms of their stated purpose.
Does the evidence still matter? We shall see.
Click to see the Paragon Health Institute study comparing outcomes between less restrictive and more restrictive COVID policies.
The Fraying of the Liberal International Order
From the Brownstone Institute
International politics is the struggle for the dominant normative architecture of world order based on the interplay of power, economic weight and ideas for imagining, designing and constructing the good international society. For several years now many analysts have commented on the looming demise of the liberal international order established at the end of the Second World War under US leadership.
Over the last several decades, wealth and power have been shifting inexorably from the West to the East and has produced a rebalancing of the world order. As the centre of gravity of world affairs shifted to the Asia-Pacific with China’s dramatic climb up the ladder of great power status, many uncomfortable questions were raised about the capacity and willingness of Western powers to adapt to a Sinocentric order.
For the first time in centuries, it seemed, the global hegemon would not be Western, would not be a free market economy, would not be liberal democratic, and would not be part of the Anglosphere.
More recently, the Asia-Pacific conceptual framework has been reformulated into the Indo-Pacific as the Indian elephant finally joined the dance. Since 2014 and then again especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year, the question of European security, political and economic architecture has reemerged as a frontline topic of discussion.
The return of the Russia question as a geopolitical priority has also been accompanied by the crumbling of almost all the main pillars of the global arms control complex of treaties, agreements, understandings and practices that had underpinned stability and brought predictability to major power relations in the nuclear age.
The AUKUS security pact linking Australia, the UK, and the US in a new security alliance, with the planned development of AUKUS-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, is both a reflection of changed geopolitical realities and, some argue, itself a threat to the global nonproliferation regime and a stimulus to fresh tensions in relations with China. British Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak said at the announcement of the submarines deal in San Diego on March 13 that the growing security challenges confronting the world—“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing assertiveness, the destabilising behaviour of Iran and North Korea”—“threaten to create a world codefined by danger, disorder and division.”
For his part, President Xi Jinping accused the US of leading Western countries to engage in an “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”
The Australian government described the AUKUS submarine project as “the single biggest investment in our defence capability in our history” that “represents a transformational moment for our nation.” However, it could yet be sunk by six minefields lurking underwater: China’s countermeasures, the time lag between the alleged imminence of the threat and the acquisition of the capability, the costs, the complexities of operating two different classes of submarines, the technological obsolescence of submarines that rely on undersea concealment, and domestic politics in the US and Australia.
Regional and global governance institutions can never be quarantined from the underlying structure of international geopolitical and economic orders. Nor have they proven themselves to be fully fit for the purpose of managing pressing global challenges and crises like wars, and potentially existential threats from nuclear weapons, climate-related disasters and pandemics.
To no one’s surprise, the rising and revisionist powers wish to redesign the international governance institutions to inject their own interests, governing philosophies, and preferences. They also wish to relocate the control mechanisms from the major Western capitals to some of their own capitals. China’s role in the Iran–Saudi rapprochement might be a harbinger of things to come.
The ”Rest” Look for Their Place in the Emerging New Order
The developments out there in “the real world,” testifying to an inflection point in history, pose profound challenges to institutions to rethink their agenda of research and policy advocacy over the coming decades.
On 22–23 May, the Toda Peace Institute convened a brainstorming retreat at its Tokyo office with more than a dozen high-level international participants. One of the key themes was the changing global power structure and normative architecture and the resulting implications for world order, the Indo-Pacific and the three US regional allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The two background factors that dominated the conversation, not surprisingly, were China–US relations and the Ukraine war.
The Ukraine war has shown the sharp limits of Russia as a military power. Both Russia and the US badly underestimated Ukraine’s determination and ability to resist (“I need ammunition, not a ride,” President Volodymyr Zelensky famously said when offered safe evacuation by the Americans early in the war), absorb the initial shock, and then reorganise to launch counter-offensives to regain lost territory. Russia is finished as a military threat in Europe. No Russian leader, including President Vladimir Putin, will think again for a very long time indeed of attacking an allied nation in Europe.
That said, the war has also demonstrated the stark reality of the limits to US global influence in organising a coalition of countries willing to censure and sanction Russia. If anything, the US-led West finds itself more disconnected from the concerns and priorities of the rest of the world than at any other time since 1945. A study published in October from Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy provides details on the extent to which the West has become isolated from opinion in the rest of the world on perceptions of China and Russia. This was broadly replicated in a February 2023 study from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
The global South in particular has been vocal in saying firstly that Europe’s problems are no longer automatically the world’s problems, and secondly that while they condemn Russia’s aggression, they also sympathise quite heavily with the Russian complaint about NATO provocations in expanding to Russia’s borders. In the ECFR report, Timothy Garton-Ash, Ivan Krastev, and Mark Leonard cautioned Western decision-makers to recognise that “in an increasingly divided post-Western world,” emerging powers “will act on their own terms and resist being caught in a battle between America and China.”
US global leadership is hobbled also by rampant domestic dysfunctionality. A bitterly divided and fractured America lacks the necessary common purpose and principle, and the requisite national pride and strategic direction to execute a robust foreign policy. Much of the world is bemused too that a great power could once again present a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump for president.
The war has solidified NATO unity but also highlighted internal European divisions and European dependence on the US military for its security.
The big strategic victor is China. Russia has become more dependent on it and the two have formed an effective axis to resist US hegemony. China’s meteoric rise continues apace. Having climbed past Germany last year, China has just overtaken Japan as the world’s top car exporter, 1.07 to 0.95 million vehicles. Its diplomatic footprint has also been seen in the honest brokerage of a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and in promotion of a peace plan for Ukraine.
Even more tellingly, according to data published by the UK-based economic research firm Acorn Macro Consulting in April, the BRICS grouping of emerging market economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) now accounts for a larger share of the world’s economic output in PPP dollars than the G7 group of industrialised countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, USA). Their respective shares of global output have fallen and risen between 1982 and 2022 from 50.4 percent and 10.7 percent, to 30.7 percent and 31.5 percent. No wonder another dozen countries are eager to join the BRICS, prompting Alec Russell to proclaim recently in The Financial Times: “This is the hour of the global south.”
The Ukraine war might also mark India’s long overdue arrival on the global stage as a consequential power. For all the criticisms of fence-sitting levelled at India since the start of the war, this has arguably been the most successful exercise of an independent foreign policy on a major global crisis in decades by India. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar even neatly turned the fence-sitting criticism on its head by retorting a year ago that “I am sitting on my ground” and feeling quite comfortable there. His dexterity in explaining India’s policy firmly and unapologetically but without stridency and criticism of other countries has drawn widespread praise, even from Chinese netizens.
On his return after the G7 summit in Hiroshima, the South Pacific and Australia, PM Narendra Modi commented on 25 May: “Today, the world wants to know what India is thinking.” In his 100th birthday interview with The Economist, Henry Kissinger said he is “very enthusiastic” about US close relations with India. He paid tribute to its pragmatism, basing foreign policy on non-permanent alliances built around issues rather than tying up the country in big multilateral alliances. He singled out Jaishankar as the current political leader who “is quite close to my views.”
In a complementary interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kissinger also foresees, without necessarily recommending such a course of action, Japan acquiring its own nuclear weapons in 3-5 years.
In a blog published on 18 May, Michael Klare argues that the emerging order is likely to be a G3 world with the US, China, and India as the three major nodes, based on attributes of population, economic weight and military power (with India heading into being a major military force to be reckoned with, even if not quite there yet). He is more optimistic about India than I am but still, it’s an interesting comment on the way the global winds are blowing. Few pressing world problems can be solved today without the active cooperation of all three.
The changed balance of forces between China and the US also affects the three Pacific allies, namely Australia, Japan, and South Korea. If any of them starts with a presumption of permanent hostility with China, then of course it will fall into the security dilemma trap. That assumption will drive all its policies on every issue in contention, and will provoke and deepen the very hostility it is meant to be opposing.
Rather than seeking world domination by overthrowing the present order, says Rohan Mukherjee in Foreign Affairs, China follows a three-pronged strategy. It works with institutions it considers both fair and open (UN Security Council, WTO, G20) and tries to reform others that are partly fair and open (IMF, World Bank), having derived many benefits from both these groups. But it is challenging a third group which, it believes, are closed and unfair: the human rights regime.
In the process, China has come to the conclusion that being a great power like the US means never having to say you’re sorry for hypocrisy in world affairs: entrenching your privileges in a club like the UN Security Council that can be used to regulate the conduct of all others.
Instead of self-fulfilling hostility, former Australian foreign secretary Peter Varghese recommends a China policy of constrainment-cum-engagement. Washington may have set itself the goal of maintaining global primacy and denying Indo-Pacific primacy to China, but this will only provoke a sullen and resentful Beijing into efforts to snatch regional primacy from the US. The challenge is not to thwart but to manage China’s rise—from which many other countries have gained enormous benefits, with China becoming their biggest trading partner—by imagining and constructing a regional balance in which US leadership is crucial to a strategic counterpoint.
In his words, “The US will inevitably be at the centre of such an arrangement, but that does not mean that US primacy must sit at its fulcrum.” Wise words that should be heeded most of all in Washington but will likely be ignored.
My Official Apology to the New York Post
From the Brownstone Institute
There is an art to meaningful apologies. A sweet spot. Wait too long and they become pointless.
Ideally, they should also be accompanied with some kind of atonement as well.
I, along with many New Yorkers, have been waiting for apologies that don’t appear to be coming. But as I’ve been waiting in the interminable void, it’s occurred to me that I might owe some apologies myself. So here goes
Years ago, I used to sneer at anyone who read the NY Post. At the café where I worked, I took quiet pleasure in tossing it in the trash whenever someone left it behind on a crumb-covered seat. Had I ever read it? No. But I knew I wasn’t the type of person to read the NY Post, and I was proud of that fact.
Then, a few years back, things started to look a little different to me. They started to look wrong, like a wool hat in summer, or a mask on a baby’s face. I started to detect lies and impossibilities coming out of the mouths of important people. “Gradually, then suddenly,” as the Hemingway quote goes, I saw things in a different light.
I could almost stomach the politicians lying, but when friends began repeating the lies it became too much to bear. Truth seemed to hover just outside of them, leaving them infuriatingly untouched.
It was a little after this time, my awakening of sorts, that I myself became an outcast.
I hadn’t set out to become an outcast. I’d reached middle age an average upstanding citizen, fairly respectful of authority. I was a mother who made her children take piano lessons for god’s sake!
But one morning, late in the summer of 2021, I woke up to find I no longer had civil rights. And things took a turn. I still marvel at how it all unfolded:
Early 2021, I thought I’d survived the worst of covid. I’d made it through a year of hysteria that I presumed would surely fade, maybe even some bashful apologies would follow, like after a long drunken night gone too far.
By then, the miracle vaccine had finally arrived and any American who wanted it could have it. But it so happened that I didn’t want it. I’d already gotten covid during lockdown, while selling essentials like coffee and toilet paper from the café I now owned, a café limping along on government funds.
An experimental vaccine for a virus I’d already had just wasn’t that appealing to me; why would it be? The decision, quite honestly, made itself. Who knew it would land me in the middle of a nightmare.
I recall the incremental announcements from our mayor at the time, a tall goofy man people likened to Big Bird. The first announcement came on the morning of August 16th, 2021;
My kind was no longer allowed to sit down and eat in cafés, he said, though we were allowed to take something in a paper bag to go.
My kind was no longer allowed to enter cultural buildings, he said; art and history were for the good citizens.
We were no longer allowed the privilege of working, or a college education.
We weren’t allowed to enter our child’s school or to serve the people we served when the vaccine was just a twinkle in Fauci’s eye. And society agreed. The “unvaccinated” deserved it. Damn them.
My anger simmered. It turned to rage. All I asked for was common sense. Every day that New York City hummed, I burned. Didn’t they see us withering with loss of hope and loss in general?
Didn’t they know there were a million of us who said no thanks? A million who didn’t have civil rights. A million who were right, as it turned out, about everything.
It seemed they did not, or if they did, they didn’t care.
And just when I was about to give up on humanity, out of the haze of covid hysteria came some of the clearest voices to be found in, of all places, the NY Post.
But of course!
I should’ve recognized Alexander Hamilton’s handsome face on the ten-dollar bill as a sign, right there next to the scrolled “We the People.” A Founding Father, Hamilton had worked to abolish the slave trade in New York City. I’d forgotten he founded the NY Post too!
While other mainstream news still wilted with ruminations on the invisible threat of long covid, or the latest Fauci whim, the NY Post blazed a trail with its demands for a return to common sense and decency.
There in print it called for an end to all mandates – if baseball players and celebrities didn’t need them why did the working class?
In chorus its editorial board called for a reckoning by way of a covid truth-and-reconciliation commission – Amen!
And long before anyone else, it dared to publish the opinions of some of the bravest academics and scientists of our time, the co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, Dr. Martin Kulldorff and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya.
So, I’m sorry, NY Post. I judged you by your cover. By your red and black barking headlines. But I was wrong. And for anyone else out there who feels they might owe someone an apology, let me tell you it feels good to settle a debt. I highly recommend it.
My Official Apology to the New York Post
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