Even if 2020 hindsight reveals the lockdown wasn't right, it was still the right choice at the time

Highway 280 near Apple is not normally like this

A frequent question I've seen these days is, "Is the lockdown worse than the disease?" The lockdowns are hugely expensive, and there are even many arguments that they will also result in large numbers of deaths. Some even advance that the death toll of the lockdowns will be higher than the toll of the virus. The economic cost is high and not evenly distributed. In addition, other diseases with similar death-tolls are survived without lockdowns.

Some also speculate that the virus will turn out to be not as fatal as predicted, or more or less virulent.

There's lots of debate on these points, but I want to sidestep that, and stipulate, for the purpose of argument, that this theory is correct. Let's presume that we learn, when it all winds down, that the lockdown was a big mistake.

The question becomes, was it a mistake to do them back in March, when we knew less than we know today? It might be possible for the lockdowns become wrong in hindsight, but nonetheless still correct, because you have to examine the question of decision making with imperfect information.

In February and March, we had many conflicting pieces of information. We saw what happened in China, and had some data from cruise ships. Italy's horror was underway. Unconfirmed rumours were circulating, yet to be confirmed or refuted, of true horrors in places like Iran. The success of the lockdown in China was starting to show, and success in Japan, Singapore and Taiwan was showing its beginnings. Credible scientific sources had quite varying numbers on the mortality rate of the disease and the R0 exponential spreading factor. Some sources predicted millions of deaths, others predicted the problem would not be that bad. Various people had arguments as to why any given theory was right or wrong, but there was no consensus.

Officials, and the world faced a difficult challenge, given all these arguments and reports. Most of them, I would venture, made the right decision.

If they did not order a lockdown, and the projections of massive death came through, they had failed to prevent a catastrophe with millions of deaths.

If they ordered a lockdown, and the virus ended up mild, they would have triggered trillions in losses, including some deaths, but by all evidence, far fewer than a bad virus outbreak would cause.

This seems like a fairly straightforward choice, regardless of what we might or might not learn later. To not lockdown when there is a credible risk of the death of millions is just not an available choice. Bad as the consequences of a lockdown might be to the economy, they won't match that.

(Of course it would be wrong to compare the consequences of a lockdown with the virus death-toll under lockdown. We don't get to do the real comparison because there are no wealthy countries, and particularly big dense cities that did no lockdown at all, even Sweden shut off most gatherings and closed high schools and universities, and has most people trying to stay at home.)

Even if the Swedes selected the best plan, it was a risky bet they took. They didn't know at the time if they might trigger becoming like Italy. But we should naturally track the progress of every strategy, and adjust strategy as more is learned. Not try to imagine what we should have decided if we had only had more solid facts a month ago.


I've seen that argument about Swedes making a big bet, but I think it's a misreading of the situation. Pundits keep dividing Europe into "everyone under lockdown" and "swedes", but that's not the reality. I think a better analysis is "countries that reacted early" vs "countries that reacted late". Spain, France, Italy are in the "late" camp, and they had to go into tight lockdowns to prevent giant outbreaks, because they had done essentially nothing in the early stages of the pandemic, so the virus managed to spread widely and quickly. At that point, the virus was so prevalent that lockdowns were a necessity.

Sweden is in the "early" camp. Its restrictions are much weaker than those in force elsewhere, but they came at a much earlier point in their epidemic (when Sweden started imposing their restrictions, they had one or two orders of magnitude fewer cases per capita per day than places like France or Spain).

So if Sweden gets out of this without having to impose a lockdown at any point, it won't show that lockdowns in the rest of Europe were unnecessary. INstead, it will suggest that lockdowns were avoidable, had softer measures been taken earlier in the course of the disease.

It's interesting that Sweden's neighbors took a different route and chose strict confinement, despite being at early stages of the disease (that approach is keeping casualties very low — much lower than Sweden's). These countries reacted fast enough (and were lucky to be affected late enough) to get a real choice between soft and hard measures. France, Spain, and Italy reacted too late, and found themselves with too many cases by the time they took measure to have a real choice.

(The same argument works to some extent for South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, etc. — early epidemic control slowed down the disease enough to significantly delay the need for stronger confinement measures).

It is apparent that total lockdown was necessary for many locations. Also apparent that it was not in some locations.

The problem is that hindsight doesn't help when trying to make the determination at the start of the process.

And you cannot generalize the issue based on the locations that didn't while ignoring the locations that did.

It's not a black and white question. "Lockdowns" come in different shapes and sizes, and people change their behavior whether governments order them to or not.

Closing grade schools was right. Closing colleges and universities (especially closing the campuses) might have made the problem worse. I'm not sure that any of the orders to stay at home had much effect at all. People washed their hands a lot more often, not because the government ordered them to but because of rational self-interest, and that probably helped more than all the government orders combined.

Public transit greatly contributed to the problem, but it's not clear how that could have been handled at the time. Even long term I'm not sure how or if many of the problems of overcrowded urban areas (and underpriced public transportation) will be solved.

Forget about across different countries. Just look in the different states. The states that locked down the least tended to have the least bad results.

If self-driving vehicles aren't tested for three months because of lockdown orders, and that pushes back development by three months, how many people does that kill?

3,700 vehicle deaths per day times 90 days equals 330,000 deaths worldwide?

Development is slowed but not halted. On-road testing is important but more and more teams are doing more in virtual.

Maybe only 60 days of setback and 222,000 lives lost?

You do agree that lost productivity from lockdowns kills, right? Measuring how much is tricky.

(You've made the argument yourself that safety driver testing saves lives, so I hope you're willing to stick with that position even when it's inconvenient to your political beliefs. Same argument can be made for countless other industries, but this is one where you've already made the argument yourself.)

I would be fine if testing had continued, particularly one safety driver testing, but the hard truth is, the testing right now is close to useless, so it's hard to see people fighting for it.

And I don't think the argument that "The whole world should keep going full speed so that there is lots of traffic for the testing teams to experience" would fly at all, anywhere. It's already very hard to get people to accept that the risk of testing itself, with the potential for Uber style fatalities, is justified by future lives saved. Even though you or I might agree with it, it's already a hard sell. The idea of keeping the world open just because it facilitates testing?

Even if people endorsed it, it's not on the table. That's because evidence suggests that a large majority of the lockdown is voluntary. People are keeping themselves safe. With no lockdown, some would go back to work, but probably not to socializing. Traffic would remain light.

I agree that it would be fine if testing had continued. I also agree that testing right now is close to useless (though it'd probably be more useful now than it was a few months ago; making sure that your car can perform safely during rare occurrences is important). I also agree that a large majority of the lockdown is voluntary!

The facts that it would be fine if testing had continued and that a large majority of the lockdown is voluntary are two facts I'd use in support of my argument that forcibly locking things down was wrong.

At least, I think that some of the lockdowns, in some of the states, went to far. I do support them closing grade schools. And in fact, I think some of the closures didn't go far enough. If NYC and Philadelphia had closed down public transit, many lives probably would have been saved.

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