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Four Years Later: Lockdown “Deaths of Despair”


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 US 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 17, 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 US was smaller in the 1970s (when Brenner conducted his research) so I updated his figures to fit the current population in the US and estimated the number of deaths that would be caused by the skyrocketing unemployment rate as a result of the Covid lockdowns.

My lower-bound estimate was 294,170 additional lives lost from deaths of despair and my upper bound estimate was 1,853,271 additional lives lost from deaths of despair if elevated unemployment persisted for six years.

Children’s Health Defense published my article on March 23, 2020 with the title, “Will ‘Deaths of Despair’ Outpace Deaths From Coronavirus?

It quickly garnered 40,000 views. Later that day President Trump picked up this argument when he predicted “tremendous death” and “suicide by the thousands” if the country isn’t “opened for business” in a matter of weeks.

Various think tanks apparently also noticed my article and built their own models of how many people would die from the lockdowns. On May 8, 2020 the Well Being Trust published Projected Deaths of Despair from Covid-19. Their study got a ton of press and their estimates were in line with the lower-bound estimates from my model (their model estimated a lower increase in unemployment and only looked at the impact of one year of elevated unemployment).

On May 21, 2020 the Brookings Institution published “Protecting our economy and our health in a pandemic” that covered the same territory that I had mapped out two months before.

Also on May 21, 2020 an article by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar titled “We have to reopen — for our health” was published in qthe Washington Post. He argued that “The economic crisis brought on by the virus is a silent killer” that “will likely cause tens of thousands of excess deaths” from suicides and opioid overdoses. (Thanks to WaPo for reminding me of this article.)

Even though all of these pieces hewed closely to my published model of Covid-lockdown-deaths-of-despair, none of them credited my original work because apparently the mainstream sees anyone who questions vaccines as untermensch (so I guess they think it’s okay to steal our ideas) and Children’s Health Defense is the nonprofit that shall not be named. Or maybe we all just had the same idea about the same time, who knows?

This surge in scrutiny of the lockdowns was all too much for the mainstream to handle — how could anyone possibly suggest that the lockdowns would cost lives, we have a pandemic to run! So on June 1, 2020, Anne Case and Angus Deaton trashed their own work publicly in an article titled, “There’s little to no evidence that ‘deaths of despair’ track unemployment rates” published in the Washington Post. Later WaPo changed the title in the online edition to blame it on Trump (and the original title was moved to a subtitle):

Case and Deaton are an extremely big deal. Case won the Kenneth Arrow Award in health economics in 2003 and was an academic rock star at Princeton throughout her illustrious career. Deaton won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2015 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2016. But they were part of the elite that was pushing the lockdowns (in spite of zero evidence supporting this approach) and now their original work on deaths of despair was problematic for the official narrative.

So in the op-ed they jettisoned the theory they had just published in their book by arguing that ‘yes, deaths of despair happen in poor white communities but no they won’t happen as a result of Covid lockdowns because, well, um, this is different.’

They wrote:

In short, we can safely dismiss confident predictions that the forthcoming recession will cause 75,000 or more new deaths of despair…

[A] wave of deaths of despair is highly unlikely. Recessions are immensely costly because they disrupt people’s lives, deprive them of work and income, and inhibit many of the activities that make life worth living. We need to find safe ways of getting back to work. But we should not scare ourselves with nightmares about tens of thousands of additional suicides or drug overdoses.

Reading that again now fills me with rage.

That was four years ago. Now the data are in and I was right and the top two health economists in the U.S. were catastrophically wrong.

An article this week in The Economist shows that deaths of despair from drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, and suicide skyrocketed over the last four years.

The Economist article points out that deaths of despair now impact nearly every demographic group (not just the poor whites studied by Case and Deaton). But it never mentions Covid nor the Covid lockdowns that The Economist championed in 2020. As I noted previously, the “flatten the curve” graph that led to the lockdowns came from The Economist on February 29, 2020. Rather than acknowledging their monumental error, The Economist simply recommended that Case and Deaton update their model to include people of color.

The quant genius Ethical Skeptic has been tracking the excess deaths as a result of the various failures of the Covid response for four years. His research shows that the missteps in the Covid response (including deaths of despair) not only killed more Americans than Covid, they also killed more Americans than all foreign wars combined.

Reasonable people can disagree about the number of deaths of despair from the Covid lockdowns. We know the number is higher than zero and so then the question becomes how much higher? Some factors to think about include:

  • Generous unemployment benefits during Covid and a robust economic recovery after the lockdowns were lifted probably reduced the death toll somewhat (the Brenner model that I used in my projections was based on increased societal unemployment for a period of six years — so the shorter Covid recession should have fewer deaths as a result).
  • But the severe isolation of Covid was new, opioids got stronger during Covid (with widespread availability of fentanyl), and disposable income from generous unemployment benefits could have increased alcohol and recreational drug purchases which likely expanded the death toll. Remember that liquor stores were deemed “essential businesses” that were kept open during the lockdowns while the churches that often hold Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were closed.
  • Also, murderous hospital protocols, blocked access to safe and effective medicines including hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, missed diagnostic and treatment appointments for disease such as cancer, and the introduction of the deadliest vaccines in history massively increased the death toll (those are not directly categorized as deaths of despair but they increased all-cause mortality nonetheless).

That’s the conversation that reasonable people could/should be having. But that’s not what happened in the spring of 2020 (and it’s not the conversation that the mainstream is capable of having even now). Instead the ruling class had a plan and a narrative and they used the éminences grises in the field of health economics, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, to say ‘nothing to see here, don’t ask any questions, we can shut down the economy with no associated loss of life.’

Their argument was self-evidently absurd. Yet, Case and Deaton got their way. The lockdowns lasted for a year and half, not the initially-promised 15 days. And hundreds of thousands of Americans died from Covid-lockdown-deaths-of-despair as a result.

Thus far Case and Deaton have paid no price for their catastrophic miscalculation in defense of junk science lockdowns. In 2021 Case was named a Distinguished Fellow by the American Economic Association (AEA) and given an award by the NIH for her contribution to behavioral and social sciences. The regime rewards its own. If either of them had told the truth about the iatrogenocide they would have been permanently banished from polite society.

So what can we learn from this sordid affair?

  • Lockdowns kill lots of people.
  • Many academic elites don’t care about the truth. When push comes to shove they will always act in ways consistent with their class position even if that contradicts their entire body of work.
  • Covid represented a unique form of hypnosis/psychosis whereby the bourgeoisie lost access to logic and reason as they rushed to kill as many people as possible in the name of public health (like stressed-out hamsters eating their young).
  • Being right early carries no rewards (at least in the short term) and usually results in significant personal harm.

I’m tired of making excuses for the people who got everything wrong during Covid. It wasn’t a mistake, they were willing participants in the plan. Anne Case and Angus Deaton are an embarrassment. I don’t care how much good work they did earlier in their careers, when the fate of society was on the line they became cowardly trolls. At a minimum, they owe me and all of society a massive apology. In a just world, the debt they would repay to society would be much greater.

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  • Toby Rogers

    Toby Rogers has a Ph.D. in political economy from the University of Sydney in Australia and a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of California, Berkeley. His research focus is on regulatory capture and corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Rogers does grassroots political organizing with medical freedom groups across the country working to stop the epidemic of chronic illness in children. He writes about the political economy of public health on Substack.

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