Lockdowns saved more lives than deaths from economic losses, UM study finds

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

A University of Michigan-led study released Friday found that nationwide lockdowns and other restrictions imposed during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic saved more lives than the number lost due to the impacts of the shutdown on the nation's economy. 

The study also looked at the number of years of good health restored to the people who were saved from COVID-19, compared with the number of healthy years lost by the people who died due to the effects of the national recession, such as the poverty, loss of health insurance, mental illness and other issues that stemmed from job losses. 

The U.S. pandemic lockdown in 2020 caused a $2.3 trillion economic downturn and split the nation politically, noted Olga Yakusheva, an associate professor of nursing at UM and the study's lead author.

The bitter national debate between people concerned about the damage to the economy and those who focused on saving lives was the impetus for the cost-benefit analysis, she said. 

"There were these two camps of thought," Yakusheva explained. "On the one side there were the pragmatic people who were worried about the economic loss.

"On the other side, there were people who ... felt like every life is infinitely important, and saving life is worth every dollar that you can spend on it. 

"What we wanted, as economists, was to bring to the surface ... that it is not just money. There is a very strong relationship between having a job and being able to pay for food and medicine, and being able to afford health care, and health and mortality."

Yakusheva's team reviewed all of the existing studies where economists tried to estimate how much money could be lost from the economy before one person would die from the effects of the economic loss.

A Christmas-themed anti-lockdown demonstration staged in 2020 to oppose Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The UM researchers determined it would take an economic loss of about $11 million to $17 million to result in one death — the smaller amount if the lion's share of the loss was suffered by the rich, and the larger amount if people from all economic brackets lost the same percentage from their incomes.   

"We looked at all the literature that had this cost-to-death estimate, and it was  empirically derived," the investigator said. "We wanted data based studies that were deriving those estimates from actual observational data." 

Using those figures, the UM researchers calculated how many deaths would have resulted from the $2.3 trillion loss to the economy that resulted from health mitigation measures.  

The study found that from March through August 2020, the widespread lockdowns and other mitigation measures in the United States potentially saved an estimated 866,350 to 1,711,150 lives. But harms caused by the economic downturn potentially caused 57,922 to 245,055 deaths.

The study looked at the number of "quality adjusted years" gained by the lockdowns, or lost due to the economic fallout of mitigation strategies. The measure is frequently used in health economics studies because of differences in each individual's age and health status, Yakusheva said. A quality adjusted life year represents one year of life in perfect health.

The results showed that people who were saved by the mitigation measures had fewer quality-adjusted years remaining than the people who died as a result of the recession.

This is because many of the people saved were high-risk older adults with multiple illnesses and fewer healthy years left to live, while those most affected by economic losses were younger people in service jobs and other lower-paying occupations, according to the study. The younger people found themselves without employer-provided health insurance and, in many cases, were unable to pay for health care or even life-saving medications, according to Yakusheva.

"Somebody who has poor health conditions, potentially is not mobile, has difficulties performing simple tasks ... their quality of life is lower, and as a result, one year of their life counts as less than a year," Yakusheva said. 

The study, published in PLOS One, should not be used to justify more lockdown measures, Yakusheva said. 

"We evaluated the full packet of public health measures as it was implemented in the beginning of the pandemic, but lesser mitigation measures may have worked just as well to reduce lives lost," Yakusheva said.

"The fact is, we just will never know. At the time, we had to work with the information that we had. We knew the pandemic was deadly, and we did not have therapeutics or a vaccine." 


Twitter: @kbouffardDN