The argument for lockdowns in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is that governments ought to enforce them because they decrease both infections and strain on health-care facilities and thus decrease overall deaths. If we had widespread testing, the argument goes, we could, perhaps, quarantine the sick and not interfere with anyone else’s freedom.1 But we don’t, so we must lock down everyone in an attempt to achieve similar results.
This argument is compelling to many because of the incredible, irreplaceable value of human life. Life is the most fundamental of values; being alive is a prerequisite for achieving any other value. And for most of us, other people are among our top values—especially our friends, colleagues, and loved ones, not to mention the countless strangers whose ideas and work enhance our lives in myriad ways. So, if lockdowns preserve human life, the thinking goes, they must be the right thing to do.
The problem is that lockdowns actually make living impossible. . . .
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1. Carriers of deadly diseases who are capable of and likely to infect other people thereby pose a direct threat to the health and lives of those others. Given that the legitimate purpose of government is to protect its citizens’ rights, I think such carriers legitimately can be quarantined. Setting thresholds for lethality and contagiousness of diseases is a technical matter to be determined by medical and legal experts.
2. Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Stephanie Simon, “Gunfire Heard in Search for Boston Marathon Bomb Suspect,” Reuters, April 19, 2013, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-explosions-boston-shooting/gunfire-heard-in-search-for-boston-marathon-bomb-suspect-idUSBRE93I0GQ20130419; note that I’m not speaking here about Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s subsequent request that Boston residents voluntarily shelter in place.
3. Safiya Richardson et al., “Presenting Characteristics, Comorbidities, and Outcomes among 5700 Patients Hospitalized with COVID-19 in the New York City Area,” Journal of the American Medical Association, April 22, 2020, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2765184.
4. John P. A. Ioannidis, “A Fiasco in the Making? As the Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Hold, We Are Making Decisions without Reliable Data,” Stat, March 17, 2020, https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/17/a-fiasco-in-the-making-as-the-coronavirus-pandemic-takes-hold-we-are-making-decisions-without-reliable-data/.
5. Alia Paavola, “171 Hospitals Furloughing Workers in Response to COVID-19,” Becker’s Healthcare, April 7, 2020, https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/49-hospitals-furloughing-workers-in-response-to-covid-19.html.
6. “State Guidance on Elective Surgeries,” Ambulatory Surgery Center Association, April 13, 2020, https://www.ascassociation.org/asca/resourcecenter/latestnewsresourcecenter/covid-19/covid-19-state; Joanne Lipmanfor, “Cancer Surgeries and Organ Transplants Are Being Put off for Coronavirus. Can They Wait?,” ProPublica, April 6, 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/cancer-surgeries-and-open-transplants-are-being-put-off-for-coronavirus-can-they-wait; Kaylee Remington, Cleveland.com, April 10, 2020, https://www.cleveland.com/coronavirus/2020/04/what-are-elective-surgeries-and-why-are-they-postponed-amid-coronavirus-hospital-leaders-explain.html.