That’s what the initial mantra of coronavirus control — “flatten the curve” — was meant to convey. When the spread of the disease is displayed as a graph, one observes a rapid climb with a slight curve. The slower the climb, the flatter the curve. Flattening the curve meant the disease spread more slowly, ensuring that hospitals and other health-care facilities could treat the patients who arrived. Graphs of the actual spread of the disease before and after the lockdowns show this happened.
The most relevant study, from researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, estimates that lockdowns and other measures prevented 4.8 million confirmed infections and nearly 60 million total infections in the United States. The authors don’t calculate how many lives this saved, but given the known fatality rates for covid-19, we can be sure it’s a lot. The United States has a confirmed case fatality rate of 5.58 percent. Applying that percentage to the estimated 4.8 million additional cases means that about 268,000 lives were saved by the U.S. interventions.
That result is likely an underestimate of the true number of lives saved. The United States implemented its measures early enough that its health systems were never overwhelmed like those in Italy and Spain. Spain’s confirmed case fatality rate is 9.4 percent, and Italy’s is 14.4 percent. Had the U.S. fatality rate risen to Italy’s level because of hospital overcrowding, more than 691,000 more people would have died.
Even this measure might understate the number of averted deaths. Reports show that many countries experiencing a covid-19 outbreak also experienced a significant rise in total deaths over the average number reported in prior years for the same time period. These “excess deaths” are almost always more than the total number of reported deaths due to covid-19, suggesting that more people died from the disease than we can confirm. U.S. data through early May suggest that covid-19-related deaths account for only about 75 percent of the total number of excess deaths, while data from the hard-hit Italian region of Lombardy show that reported covid-19 deaths were only about one-third of the total number of excess deaths. Either figure means lockdowns saved hundreds of thousands more lives.
The anti-lockdown arguments ignore these data entirely. They instead rely on the published number of covid-19-related deaths to date, saying that this relatively paltry number is more akin to a bad flu year and hardly justifies the massive unemployment and economic pain the lockdowns have caused. But this overlooks the fact that this number is much lower because of the lockdowns. That’s the epitome of comparing apples to oranges.
Americans are no different from people all around the globe: They prefer safety over liberty when their lives are at stake. Had the anti-lockdown ideologues gotten their way in mid-March, when battles reportedly were raging inside the Trump administration over whether to give sanction for states to implement lockdowns, more Americans would have died and the lockdowns would have occurred anyway. Elected officeholders were never going to sit passively while Americans died by the truckload.
None of this means we should continue the lockdown regimes today. Research suggests that covid-19, like many respiratory illnesses, might transmit less efficiently during the warmer summer months. The health-care system is also better equipped to handle new cases than it was in March, and its capacity to care for the sick grows daily. At this point, most places in the United States can and should cautiously reopen. Covid-19 may not be gone, but its progress has been largely checked. Our priority now should be to help Americans get their lives and livelihoods back in order.
Conservatives who support the reopenings now should accept the obvious. The lockdowns were necessary, and they worked. Millions of Americans who would have died or lost a loved one are thankful that they did.