In the second week of March 2020, the Trump administration announced “15 days to flatten the curve” based on the misguided notion that shutting the economy down temporarily would reduce hospital admissions and thus lower the Covid death toll over the medium and long term. As you know, in some places the lockdowns of schools and businesses lasted for up to 18 months and destroyed the U.S. economy and hundreds of thousands of small businesses in the process.
At the time, I was battling against SB163 in Colorado — a bill that required parents to be tracked in a Government database and go through an online re-education program if they wanted their children to attend public school but declined any childhood vaccines. But the legislature suddenly shut down with no reopen date in sight.
So I pivoted to working on Covid and the Covid lockdowns. I recalled that there is an extensive literature on “social determinants of health” and “deaths of despair” going back to the 1970s. The idea is relatively straightforward — if the unemployment rate goes up, lots of bad things happen including increases in murder, domestic violence, child abuse, incarceration, mental illness, suicide and deaths from drug and alcohol poisoning.
So I did a deep dive into the subject and located the foundational document. Harvey Brenner (then at Johns Hopkins University) on behalf of the Joint Economic Committee of the United States Congress in the mid 1970s found that:
A 1% increase in the unemployment rate sustained over a period of six years has been associated (during the past three decades) with increases of 36,887 total deaths, including 20,240 cardiovascular deaths, 920 suicides, 648 homicides, 495 deaths from cirrhosis of the liver, 4,227 state mental hospital admissions, and 3,340 state prison admissions.
In a strange twist of fate, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton was published on March 17th 2020 and was heavily promoted across the mainstream media. It updates the work of Brenner and makes the case that economic crises produce adverse health outcomes including disability and death.
It struck me that the Covid lockdowns were producing an economic crisis that would have severe health outcomes, possibly worse than Covid itself. So I set out to model the health impacts of the lockdowns for the first time.
The population in the U.S. was smaller in the 1970s (when Brenner conducted his research) so I updated his figures to fit the current population in the U.S. and estimated the number of deaths that would be caused by the skyrocketing unemployment rate as a result of the Covid lockdowns.