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Economists attempt to minimize the value of measures to combat COVID-19

Listeners and readers who do not know the name Laurie Garrett should. She is an outstanding public health expert who wrote an article was entitled, “Economists Are Fueling the War Against Public Health,” that made me sit up and take notice. The article was published online in Foreign Policy and is available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/08/economists-are-fueling-the-war-against-public-health/.  

In it, she discusses a working paper by three economists.

“A new report that has grabbed headlines on Fox News and other Murdoch-owned news outlets claims that regulations aimed at curtailing spread of the coronavirus through mandatory masking, lockdowns, and school closures in 2020 only reduced deaths from SARS-CoV-2 infections by 0.2 percent.”

I believe this working paper provides an opportunity for the right-wing media echo chamber to engage in a dangerous round of gaslighting. Those who watch Fox News now believe that the rest of the nation’s media is denying their viewers information about a “Johns Hopkins Study” that “proves” that Fauci and Biden and Democratic Governors --- and OUR OWN COMMON SENSE --- are all wrong. More people will die if more people come to believe that this “study” proved anything.

[And by the way, this is not a “Johns Hopkins Study.” It is a working paper one of whose authors works at Johns Hopkins.]

The behavior of these three economists reminds me of what the great Cambridge University (UK) economist Joan Robinson used to say: The main reason to study economics is so one will not be misled by economists. Amen to that!

Here are some quotes from Garrett:

“[T]he trio of economists claims, in a meta-analysis of allegedly thousands of coronavirus studies, to show that none of the non-pharmaceutical measures taken by governments—like mask wearing, social distancing, bar closures, virtual school, and stay-at-home orders—have had any clear benefit in reducing the burden of death in the pandemic. Their lengthy literature review has not been peer-reviewed or submitted for review to a major journal.”

Let’s pause for a moment to define “meta-analysis.” Usually it involves corralling hundreds (in this case thousands) of research papers and attempting to summarize the conclusions by combining the results. But in this case, the authors did the opposite. Though they claimed to have found over 18,000 relevant papers, they decided that only 34 of them merited inclusion.

Garrett: “There are many reasons, both methodological and analytical, why the new report is wrong, …The most obvious evidence that lockdowns—however authoritarian or heinous they may be—stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and prevent associated mortality is China. …The United States has suffered around 2,690 deaths per million people. The rate in China has been around 3 deaths per million.”

“China’s policies have, of course, been brutal… [b]ut less despotic lockdowns surely help explain why New Zealand has had only 11 deaths per million people, South Korea at 132, and Japan at 150. … By excluding all Asian nations from their analysis, the trio ends up comparing measures in the dismally-mortality-stricken United States and the similarly hard-hit European Union, which has 2,150 deaths per million.”

“In the United States, multiple studies show markedly higher mortality rates in counties that voted Republican in the 2020 presidential election, where regulatory actions to address the pandemic are less likely to be in place, compared to counties that voted Democrat. Similarly, getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and taking the debunked ivermectin treatment for COVID all follow partisan lines in the United States.”

“A new study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and California health authorities found that people in that state who wore any type of masks when among others in indoor settings reduced their odds of infection by 56 percent. If they wore N95 or K95 masks their risk dropped by a whopping 83 percent. Imposing mask-wearing guidelines in this pandemic appears to spare millions of infections and related deaths.”

So what was going on with this study? Many economists like to assert that economics is a science. In fact, many assert that economics is the “Queen” of the social sciences because it utilizes data to test hypotheses and draws conclusions based on the scientific method. Thus, economists have no problem working in areas about which they know very little. The current working paper is no exception. As one writer argued, the three economists “… lack expertise in epidemiology and infectious diseases, which is pertinent to this subject, given that lockdowns were used to combat the spread of an infectious disease.”

[This quote is part of an article published online by Health Feedback. (See “Claims that a “Johns Hopkins study” showed lockdowns are ineffective at reducing COVID-19 mortality are based on a working paper with questionable methods,” available at https://healthfeedback.org/claimreview/claims-johns-hopkins-study-showed-lockdowns-ineffective-reducing-covid-19-mortality-based-working-paper-questionable-methods-fox-news-daily-mail/ )]

Despite the penchant for economists to venture into other discipline’s territory because they think they have the “scientific methodology,” they have the same problem that all social scientists have. It is impossible to conduct controlled experiments on many important issues. Take this working paper. The only way to really see the impact of the various “non-pharmaceutical measures” during calendar year 2020 would be to run the same history again with everything the same except there would be none of those “non-pharmaceutical measures.”

Now many of us may remember that in school we are often taught that “history is the laboratory of the social sciences.” In other words, the interactions of humans in groups whether it be in the field of economics, sociology, anthropology or politics can be observed in history and (supposedly) “lessons” can be learned about human behavior from such observations. However, that is hardly a replication of what happens in a laboratory. In history, everything happens once and everything happens all at once. In a laboratory, it is possible to isolate the impact of something by separating experimental groups from control groups. That’s how the medical effectiveness of a particular drug is determined. One group gets the medicine and the control group gets the placebo. We cannot rerun history to replicate what occurs in a laboratory.

Thus, when economists claim they are engaging in a “test” of a particular hypothesis, one has to look very carefully as to how they attempt to get around the difficulty of conducting controlled experiments. In the working paper that raised Garrett’s hackles, the cherry-picking should have been a warning sign right from the start. Also, let’s remember, the conclusion reached by these three economists fit very well into the world view of the right-wing media echo-chamber.

When I delivered my commentary on the radio, I said I would like to dismiss this study with a barnyard epithet. But I couldn’t because this impersonation of a scientific investigation is dangerous. As Garrett points out in her article, the right wing has jumped on it.

The Health Feedback article gives significant substantive evidence for the slipshod nature of the working paper:

“A meta-analysis combines data from multiple studies to answer a specific question, for example, whether sunscreen reduces the risk of skin cancer. One of the key advantages of a meta-analysis is that it provides greater statistical power, as it involves many more subjects in the analysis than a single study could provide. …

“One issue with the paper is that the meta-analysis it undertook “systematically excluded from consideration any study based on the science of disease transmission”, said Seth Flaxman , an associate professor at Oxford University who specializes in statistics.

“[One critic] noted the paper’s anomalous results which were at odds with the studies that made up their meta-analysis. For example, one study … included in the meta-analysis, which also contributed the greatest weight in the analysis, reported that lockdowns were beneficial with mitigating COVID-19-related deaths. [‘Less stringent interventions increase the number of deaths, whereas more severe responses to the pandemic can lower fatalities,’ Carolyn Chisadza, Matthew Clance and Rangan Gupta, “Government Effectiveness and the COVID-19 Pandemic” available at https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/13/6/3042 ]”

Yet the working paper, inexplicably, arrived at the opposite conclusion

The Health Feedback piece continues:

“Finally, results from published studies contradict the findings of the paper, finding that lockdowns were beneficial in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives. For example, Lurie et al. reported that “Among states without stay-at-home orders, the median increase in [epidemic] doubling time was 60% … compared with 269% … for states with stay-at-home orders”, suggesting that “stay-at-home orders combined with varied levels of implementing practices of testing, tracing, and isolation … as well as travel restrictions, likely played a key role in significantly reducing the epidemic growth rate.” [One study] estimated that across 11 countries in Europe, lockdowns helped prevent more than three million deaths.

“If we consider the nature of infectious diseases, it is only to be expected that fewer cases and deaths follow a lockdown. Given that close contact with other people facilitates virus transmission, measures that limit such contact, like a stay-at-home order, would inevitably reduce infection and in turn deaths. An assertion to the contrary would require strong evidence, which the working paper doesn’t provide.”

In the course of following up some of the leads in the Garrett article, in addition to the Health Feedback article, I came upon a piece from Forbes:  Bruce Y. Lee, “Did So-Called ‘Johns Hopkins Study’ Really Show Lockdowns Were Ineffective Against Covid-19?” which was published February 6, 2022 and is available at

https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2022/02/06/did-so-called-johns-hopkins-study-really-show-lockdowns-were-ineffective-against-covid-19/?sh=32e6c9521225 Those three articles make it very clear that Joan Robinson was right. It is very easy to be misled by economists. One needs to study economics to build up resistance to the kind of gaslighting evidenced in the working paper currently being celebrated by the right-wing echo chamber.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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