ANALYSIS | Do lockdowns help? No, they only appear to make things worse

To find out whether lockdowns work to combat the Covid-19 virus, one can calculate the strictness of the lockdown measures of countries, and plot those results against the number of deaths from the disease per million people per country. If it were true that lockdowns curb the spread of the virus, we would expect countries with stricter lockdowns to do so more effectively than those with more relaxed measures.

Our World in Data has an Index that measures the stringency of government responses to the pandemic (the Stringency Index for short) that is based on "nine response indicators including school closures, workplace closures, and travel bans, rescaled to a value from 0 to 100 (100 = strictest)".

For the table below I worked out the average stringency for a group of countries, the 24 highest-income countries with ethnically diverse populations. (Diverse populations almost without fail have worse infection rates than homogeneous countries). The period of measurement runs from 21 February 2020 to 21 September 2020, the end, more or less, of the first wave of the pandemic, when in most countries the number of deaths per day approached nil. The stringency number is worked out by calculating the average weekly figure over 31 weeks.

Country Stringency of measures Total deaths per M at 21/9/20

Peru 82 951

Ecuador 75 625

Colombia 75 475

Chile 72 643

UK 68 616

SA 67 268

Ave strictest quartile 73 596

Moldova 67 300

Mexico 65 570

US 65 603

Brazil 65 644

Russia 64 132

Canada 63 245

Ave 2nd strictest quartile 64 415

Lebanon 61 44

Singapore 61 5

Spain 61 652

Belgium 61 858

Malaysia 56 4

Romania 54 231

Ave 3rd strictest quartile 59 261

Switzerland 47 236

Latvia 40 19

Estonia 39 48

Mauritius 36 8

New Zealand 35 5

Belarus 14 83

Ave most lenient quartile 35 66

From the above comparisons it is clear, at the very least, that there is no correlation between the stringency of government interventions such as lockdowns, and low death tolls from Covid-19.

On the contrary, the correlation runs in the opposite direction. Lenient lockdowns are associated with low death totals.

However, one remains mindful of the principle that correlation does not prove causation. So, lockdowns don't necessarily cause high death rates. It may be, for example, that stringency of lock-down-type measures was caused by the perceived threat posed by rising corona death figures, rather than the other way around. Governments conceivably imposed stricter measures precisely because they were under pressure due to observed rising deaths. I return to that possibility below.

At this stage, what the table shows is that lockdowns at the very least appear not to be a key determinant of the spread and resultant mortality caused by the disease.

That question is returned to below too.

One argument that is bound to crop up at this stage of the discussion, is that lockdowns have justifiably been strict at the outset of pandemic outbreaks, in that they were necessary to curb the onset of cases so that hospitals and other health facilities could cope. In other words, the average strictness of a lockdown is less important than the timing of its strict application. The narrative around New Zealand, for example, seems to support this notion. New Zealand had a strict lockdown up front (soon to be relaxed), and as everyone knows, very low death statistics.

One has to ask, however: If "flattening the curve"" at the outset was such an effective measure, why did the countries with high death tolls not demonstrate that? Almost all the countries in the table with high stringency measures (the first and second quartiles in particular) imposed strict lockdowns within a week or two of the start of the pandemic in those territories, and all about a week before their daily cases peaked, and virtually all have high death percentages. What is more, many island states in the Pacific Ocean like New Zealand did not follow such an approach of severe lockdown up front, followed by a relaxation thereafter - and they ended up with even lower mortality by 21 September, such as Singapore, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Taiwan.

That prompts us to say that the acid test is not countries that imposed strict lockdowns from early on, irrespective of whether they lifted those measures early.

The question is rather how countries fared that never imposed strict lockdowns, whether in the beginning phases of the pandemic, or at any other stage. Based on the prevailing narrative, those countries would have unleashed the fury of the pandemic on their unsuspecting populations, causing havoc.

It turns out there are six countries in the world whose response stringency never exceeded 50 on the Stringency Index. In other words, they are the six countries that we know about, with the most relaxed government responses of all countries in the world.

Their maximum stringency measures of 50 or less, compared to the typical 80 in the above sample of 24 diverse countries. Even controversial Sweden started with a response of 64, significantly higher than the 50 used as my cut-off point in the sample of six. These countries' maximum stringency figures are shown below, together with their confirmed deaths at the end of the first wave at 21 September 2020. As a control, I compared the figures with those of 3 neighboring peers of each.

Second Table:

Country Maximum stringency of response Total deaths per M at 21/9/20

Tanzania 50 0.35

Tanzania Peers 79 10

Kenya 88 12

Mozambique 80 1.4

Zambia 70 18

Japan 47 12

Japan Peers 83 47

South Korea 82 8

Russia 87 132

China 81 3

Macau 44 0

Macau peers 91 16

China 81 3

Vietnam 96 0.36

Philippines 97 45

Taiwan 31 0.29

Taiwan Peers 75 20

China 81 3

Philippines 97 45

Japan 47 12

Belarus 18 82

Belarus Peers 85 91

Russia 87 132

Poland 81 59

Ukraine 88 82

Burundi 13 0.08

Burundi peers 73 1.7

DRC 80 3

Tanzania 50 0.35

Rwanda 90 2


low-lockdown 33 15


Average All

Peers 81 31

Average World Est 70 123

As can be seen, the average of these countries' deaths from Corona as at 21 September 2020 was 15 per million people. That can be compared to the world average at that stage of 123 per million people, the average of the peer countries of 31, not to mention the typical locked-down, developed countr