About That Terrible Johns Hopkins Lockdown “Study”

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Last week I read a surprising headline: “Johns Hopkins Study: Lockdowns Had ‘Little To No Effect On COVID-19 Mortality’ But Had ‘Devastating’ Effects On Society.” The article went on to explain that “stringency index studies find that lockdowns in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% on average.”

This was surprising not because I think it’s impossible that lockdowns might not be as great for stopping the spread of disease as we all thought (though I’m skeptical), but because, well…it’s kind of difficult to argue, from a scientific standpoint, that lockdowns in the US didn’t work well when the US never tried a lockdown.

As usual, here are the quick facts up front: this isn’t a real “study” like one might find in a scientific journal. It’s not peer-reviewed, and it wasn’t conducted by medical professionals. It’s an article written by an economist named Steve H. Hanke for his own little series of papers that he posts on the Johns Hopkins Krieger School website.

This paper calls itself a meta-analysis, a type of study I cover a lot: meta-analyses CAN be very helpful in that if done carefully, they can distill a large amount of data across many different studies to show what the preponderance of evidence shows about a particular issue. But if done poorly, they allow someone to cherrypick data that suits their narrative and ignore the data that disproves it. That’s why it’s important that even meta-analyses go through critical peer review, which again, this one did not appear to do.

The economists started off with 18,590 studies, which, wow! That’s a lot! That amount of data should definitely give us a significant result. Except…they then cut those 18,590 studies down to 1,048 studies based on whether or not their titles suggested they might be worthwhile. Okay! Not everything is going to be related to the topic. A thousand is still an impressive number of studies. But then they narrowed it down a LITTLE further, to…117 studies. The other 931 “either did not measure the effect of lockdowns on mortality or did not use an empirical approach.” Okay, 117! Except…all but 34 of those weren’t good enough. So, 34 studies. Of THOSE, only 22 were peer-reviewed, and all of them only looked at the effect of “lockdowns” (more on that in a minute) during the first wave. All but one only included data up to September of 2020, which is strange considering that the biggest benefit of lockdowns is long-term mortality.

Eventually, the economists figured that ten of the final 34 were not good enough either. Of the remaining 24 included in this meta-analysis, which has not been peer-reviewed, it appears that only 17 of THOSE were peer-reviewed. Huh. Things are…not looking great.

I want to stop for a second because right before I recorded this video I saw that someone else took a look at this meta analysis and found that the majority of it is weighted toward just ONE study. He reached out to that study’s author who confirmed the meta-analysis came to the complete opposite conclusion of the one study it is based on. So.

Let’s pause there to talk about “lockdowns.” Lockdown has a very specific meaning apart from its colloquial meaning, and one would hope that a scientific evaluation would understand that, but this paper does not appear to. It’s important that in cases like this we avoid colloquial terms because there’s a huge difference between a lockdown, a quarantine, a vaccine mandate, a government-issued recommendation – lumping all these things under “lockdown” would be like a scientific paper on evolution discussing how it’s “just a theory” because the colloquial use of “theory” means “something we’re not totally sure of.” There’s a reason why scientists uphold a different standard of word choice and definitions.

An actual “lockdown” looks like what China did in early 2020 in the Hubei province: on January 23rd, they shut down ALL public transportation in Wuhan, including buses, ferries, and subways. The Wuhan airport was closed. Major highways leading out of Wuhan were closed. Residents could not leave the city without explicit government permission. Some cities only allowed one member of each household to leave the house every few days to get provisions.

New Zealand and Vietnam enacted similar measures. In New Zealand, they closed the borders to non-citizens by March of 2020. Citizens returning from abroad had to isolate for two weeks. Tourists were forced into isolation if they didn’t go willingly. In May the country passed a bill allowing law enforcement to enter residents without a warrant to enforce lockdown measures. People could only leave their homes for essential personal movement. All gatherings were banned and all non-essential businesses were closed.

In Vietnam, the government immediately locked down areas with known COVID cases, starting with 10,000 people who were forced to quarantine for about a month with the military called in to enforce it. In July, they placed a million people in quarantine and mandated that they “only go out in case of extreme necessity such as buying food, medicine,seeking essential goods and services, and medical emergencies. All educational and non-essential services in the city (were) closed. Face masks were mandated in public and people were ordered to frequently wash their hands with soap or alcoholic sanitisers. Gatherings of more than two people in public (were) disallowed and maintenance of a minimum distance of 2 meters is required. All types of public transport were halted and personal vehicles were heavily restricted “

But not a single state in the United States ever came anywhere close to doing anything like that. That’s why it’s helpful to have words other than “lockdown” to precisely talk about what did happen: some states closed some businesses; some did not. Some states mandated masks indoors, and some states enacted bills stating private businesses could NOT insist their customers wear masks indoors. Some counties discouraged travel, but no state, county, or city strongly enforced the restriction of people’s movement around the country. Americans were encouraged to stay home if they could, but no one was forced to.

If the entire world were a public pool, New Zealand and Vietnam would be hanging out in separate submarines while Californians tried to swim to the deep end to avoid the Texans, who are pissing in the shallow end and chugging beers to refill their bladders as quickly as possible. It would be bad enough for a study to look at that entire pool, call it all “lockdown” and take the average effectiveness of everyone’s measures, but in this case the meta-analysis really didn’t care much about THE SUBMARINES. New Zealand, Vietnam, and China were all but ignored, as 13 studies looked at the United States alone, two covered the US and Europe, and one covered Italy. Despite a few of the papers claiming to look at “worldwide” measures, the meta-analysis authors’ conclusion only considers what they call “lockdowns” in the US and Europe. Hmmmmmmm!

It’s very interesting, because New Zealand and Vietnam, who used strict, well-enforced lockdowns to demonstrably slow down the spread of COVID-19 in their borders and undeniably save countless lives. For instance, this peer-reviewed study published last year in the Lancet found that not only did New Zealand’s lockdown prevent deaths from COVID, but they actually had lower all-cause mortality compared to historical data because the lockdown also stopped the spread of diseases like influenza and pneumonia. For SOME reason, this study was not included in the meta analysis.

And then there’s this study on Vietnam, also not included in the meta-analysis for some reason despite being peer-reviewed and published in BMJ Public Health, that found “Controlling outbreaks in settings, such as crowded public places (bars and hospitals), within certain villages and over cities, required early detection, aggressive trace-test-quarantine efforts, a geographically extensive lockdown area and an adoption of several non-pharmaceutical interventions. Many low-income and middle-income countries have experienced their second or third wave of the COVID-19 epidemic, and they can learn from Vietnam’s response across the three epidemic waves. Swift governmental action, strict border control measures, effective communication of health promotion measures, widespread community engagement, expanded testing capacity and effective social measures to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, are highly important in these locations.”

I didn’t cherrypick those studies – there have been dozens of peer-reviewed papers published in the past two years specifically looking at countries that had more success dealing with COVID-19, and all of them credit a few notable early and direct actions: contact tracing, the allocation of resources to medical professionals, and yeah, strict lockdowns.

This meta-analysis ignored all of that, choosing to focus primarily on the US, where our measures were neither early nor strict. So it’s no surprise that they found that (and I’m quoting them quoting one fo the studies they included) “The ineffectiveness [of lockdowns] stemmed from individual changes in behavior: either non-compliance or behavior that mimicked lockdowns.” You don’t say! A “lockdown” that isn’t really a “lockdown” and that people don’t adhere to doesn’t work. Huh!

This embarrassment of a meta-analysis actually did look at some independent “lockdown” measures, and EVEN THEY found that mandating facemasks reduced COVID deaths by 21.2%, though they discount that because it was only based on two of the studies they decided to include. Which is weird, because that’s almost 10% of all the studies they looked at. You’d think that would be significant.

They also found that closing nonessential businesses like bars and restaurants reduced mortality by 10.6%. But for some reason, that figure got buried when it came time for outlets like the Daily Mail to breathlessly write headlines that “lockdowns” only reduce mortality by a measly .2%.

It’s simply not true, but that won’t stop credulous conservatives from spreading this cherrypicked, non-peer-reviewed self-published dumpster fire all over your Q-Anon uncle’s Facebook page.

In case you’re curious, the meta analysis coauthor who publishes this series, Hanke, has some…let’s say “fringe” opinions about the pandemic, like calling mitigation efforts “fascist” (which he thinks is the same as “socialist”) and likening politicians who enact vaccine mandates to Hitler, he believes in the lab leak conspiracy theory, and he really hates Dr. Fauci, blaming him for turning a blind eye to “hundreds of thousands of illegal unvaxxed immigrants”. I mean, he started hating him some time after this tweet in March of 2020 when he wrote “#COVID19 is now being used as the #Left’s #Political weapon against 

@realDonaldTrump. Inciting fear w/ their inflated, unreliable numbers. The #Media’s stirring the pot of this witch’s brew. Best to listen to Dr.# Fauci or my @Johnshopkins colleagues.”

It’s also weird that Hanke forgot to include Vietnam in his meta-analysis considering that he pissed off the entire country a little while back by claiming that they are a “rotten apple” who wasn’t reporting COVID deaths, when in fact they DID report their deaths. It’s just that they had zero deaths, because, you know, they made judicious use of early and stringent lockdowns. Awkward.

So, yeah, I guess you could say he’s coming at this from a very particular perspective, and that perspective is completely batshit. Honestly, Johns Hopkins should be embarrassed but at this point I’m assuming they just don’t care anymore.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. Steve H. Hanke is a Cato institute fellow which means he is paid to paint whatever claims suit the pockets of the Koch brothers with a veneer of scientific respectability regardless of truth.

    I don’t agree with using the term ‘prostitute’ to refer to sex workers but it is certainly applicable to anyone who takes money to do such work.

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