Pandemic lockdowns likely caused “more harm than benefit” with “substantial and wide-ranging collateral damage” that will be felt for years to come, including millions of non-Covid excess deaths, a rise in child abuse and domestic violence, and trillions of dollars in economic losses, according to new research.
Dr Kevin Bardosh, an applied medical anthropologist from the University of Washington, conducted a “comprehensive” review of more than 600 research publications to evaluate the “global state of knowledge” on the adverse social impacts caused by lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs).
“It looks like many original predictions of adverse effects are broadly supported by research data,” Australian National University infectious disease expert Professor Peter Collignon wrote on Twitter in response to Dr Bardosh’s paper.
In a thread summarising his findings, Dr Bardosh noted that Covid was the “most disruptive global crisis since WWII and the use of NPIs, including lockdown, the most consequential set of policies in modern public health history”.
“Early on, many voiced concern that NPIs would cause widespread social harm, especially for vulnerable [and] poorer people,” he said. “Now, a few years in future, we can evaluate concerns with wisdom of hindsight and based on a lot of research evidence.”
The preprint paper, which was funded by UK charity Collateral Global, found that “the collateral damage of the pandemic response was substantial, wide-ranging and will leave behind a legacy of harm for hundreds of millions of people in the years ahead”.
Previously anticipated negative effects now borne out in the scientific literature include “a rise in non-Covid excess mortality, mental health deterioration, child abuse and domestic violence, widening global inequality, food insecurity, lost educational opportunities, unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, social polarisation, soaring debt, democratic backsliding and declining human rights”.
“Young people, individuals and countries with lower socio-economic status, women and those with pre-existing vulnerabilities were hit hardest,” the paper said.
“Societal harms should challenge the dominant mental model of the pandemic response – it is likely that many Covid policies caused more harm than benefit, although further research is needed to address knowledge gaps and explore policy trade-offs, especially at a country level.”
The research concluded that “planning and response for future global health emergencies must integrate a wider range of expertise to account for and mitigate societal harms associated with government intervention”.
Starting in March and April 2020, national lockdowns were imposed in around 150 countries.
Over the next two years, governments adopted various containment measures such as school and workplace closures, gathering size limits and travel restrictions, economic stimulus including income support, and health policies such as mandatory masks, testing and vaccination.
Some of these policies remained in place as late as 2022 and even 2023.
“A vigorous and consequential public and scientific debate has continued about these disease control policies,” the paper said.
“There is a general tendency for the public health community to be overly optimistic about the benefits of their interventions and underplay or ignore their harm.”
The paper noted that “not all social effects were negative for all people”, citing increased time spent with family and some recovery of natural ecosystems, but that its goal was “not to conduct a systematic cost-benefit analysis or to weigh different positives and negatives”.
“Rather it was to review the research data on adverse consequences,” it said.
The paper analysed societal harms across 10 categories – health, economy, income, education, food security, lifestyle, relationships, community, environment and governance.
High-level findings include “14-18 million excess deaths, of which 5-6 million are reported Covid deaths”, “tens of millions of new mental health disorders, especially among young people”, “long-term economic and business damage, including soaring government and private debt”, and “$US6 trillion in lost income for workers worldwide”, Dr Bardosh said.
Studies from North America suggested mortality increases were “mainly found from hypertension and heart disease, diabetes, drug overdoses, homicide, Alzheimer’s, and motor vehicle fatalities”.
“Excess non-Covid mortality is predicted to remain elevated in the years ahead for many conditions, including anticipated increases in cardiovascular disease and cancer,” the paper said.
It noted pandemic rules contributed to a rise in stigma, “partially driven by media narratives, heightened fear and social conformity” to the rules.
“Studies on media representations from Canada and the UK found a strong moralisation discourse that blamed and shamed specific groups (e.g. Asians, young people, nonconforming individuals) and divided the population into – ‘the virtuous’ rule followers (considered selfless and smart) and the deviants (e.g. Covidiots; immoral, stupid and selfish), who questioned or criticised the NPI rules and/or did not respect the rules,” it said.
The pandemic increased public consumption of media “while also challenging journalistic standards and exacerbating threats to media freedom”, according to the paper.
“Studies show an increase in global news consumption in 2020, mainly for TV news (including live briefings), social media and internet news,” it said.
“Increases in media use were associated with a decline in mental health. Studies generally show that political sources dominated the crisis reporting, revealing the central influence of the state and biomedical experts in constructing pandemic news, with some indication that critical scrutiny of policy decisions were minimal.”
The paper concluded that there were “many lessons” to be learned from the Covid pandemic.
“The data on harms should promote a greater awareness about the complexity of large-scale policy experiments in social distancing and government management of social life,” it said.
“This should support a higher level of healthy scepticism about simplistic narratives and technocratic governance that aim for unrealistic goals presented to the public as urgent moral imperatives.”
Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially downgraded the Covid pandemic, saying it no longer qualified as a global health emergency. The UN health agency first declared the international crisis on January 30, 2020.
Days later, the WHO also declared the global monkeypox emergency over.
Just this week, however, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned the world must prepare for the next, “even deadlier” pandemic, possibly from the terrifying “Disease X” — the WHO code for a disease caused by a germ that hasn’t even been discovered yet.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that there is potential of a Disease X event just around the corner,” Pranab Chatterjee, a researcher at the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, told the National Post.