- Many have speculated that pandemic lockdowns have harmed people more than COVID-19 itself.
- However, a review of the data suggests that this isn’t the case.
- The study authors concede that the lockdowns aren’t without consequences.
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Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have questioned whether the health impacts of the lockdowns have been worse than the disease itself.
For example, some have claimed that it’s been harder for people to access healthcare during the pandemic, leading to more death and illness from causes other than COVID-19.
It’s also been suggested that the isolation of social distancing may have resulted in higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in the population.
To determine whether there’s any truth to these claims, an international team of scientists conducted a review.
Their conclusion? While lockdowns have impacted health, the effects don’t appear to outweigh those of COVID-19 itself, at least in the short term.
To examine the problem, the researchers used The World Mortality Dataset.
This is the largest international dataset of all-cause deaths. It includes countries that have used measures such as lockdowns as well as those who haven’t.
Since the onset of the pandemic, it’s collected data on excess mortality from 94 countries.
Excess mortality is the number of deaths that exceed what would normally be anticipated based upon current trends.
They found that none of the locations that instituted lockdowns alongside low numbers of COVID-19 cases had excess deaths. This result is consistent with the idea that lockdowns didn’t cause excess deaths.
In fact, lead author Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz and his team said that COVID-19 restrictions may have reduced the annual number of deaths by about 3 to 6 because they slowed the spread of the flu.
On the other hand, locations with fewer restrictions, such as certain parts of the United States, had higher excess mortality.
The authors do concede, however, that the excess mortality data don’t prove that lockdowns didn’t cause any harm.
There’s a clear link between the pandemic and reduced usage of healthcare services, they said. However, it’s unclear whether this is due to the effects of the pandemic itself or government restrictions.
When it comes to mental health effects, the authors said that there’s “consistent and robust” evidence that the lockdowns aren’t linked to increased suicide rates.
In fact, cases of suicide appear to have been reduced, especially in certain age groups such as in children.
Finally, they found that global health programs like those dealing with tuberculosis and malaria were disrupted, but it’s not clear whether these disruptions were from the pandemic itself or from government lockdowns.
The authors concluded their report by saying that the harms associated with lockdowns are “real, multifaceted, and potentially long term” and are “an important factor for policy makers to consider” as they choose how to deal with a pandemic.
However, the restrictions are “far less damaging than some have suggested,” they said.
Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, said that the findings of the study weren’t surprising, since reducing deaths was the goal of every step that was taken to stop COVID-19.
“We did the best we could,” said Labus, “as we had no roadmap for how to approach this pandemic.”
Labus further pointed out that there’s a large difference between harms at the individual level and harms at the community level.
For example, even though the study found that suicide rates didn’t increase overall, this doesn’t mean that no individual suicides were associated with COVID-19 restrictions, Labus said. “If we implement something that is good for 99 percent of the population, it would be considered an overwhelming success, but the one percent would disagree.”
Labus also pointed that there’s a big difference between actual harm and things that people simply don’t like.
“If we can prevent hundreds of deaths, but tens of thousands of people are complaining about it but not actually suffering any ill effects, that seems like a fair tradeoff to me,” said Labus.
Finally, Labus noted that these decisions are political rather than scientific ones.
“Each community is going to have different negative effects from the lockdowns and will be willing to accept different degrees of those effects. It is up to that community to decide what is best for them.”
Dr. Niraj Patel, chair of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, added that one of the ways that we may be able to mitigate the effects of the lockdowns is by making healthcare more available and in different formats.
For example, telemedicine may reduce wait times, improve access, and reduce mental stress, anxiety, and depression.
Also, since there may be missed opportunities to provide routine vaccinations to children, it’s crucial to educate parents about why these vaccinations are important, he said.