In the last post, I pointed out that lockdowns do not only broke with the self-concept of liberal societies, but they also failed to pass any cost-benefit assessment. So, if lockdowns were such a terrible policy: Why did nearly all countries resort to some type of “lockdowns”? To avoid any disappointment: I don’t know. In the following, I will share several different attempts to contribute to answering this question. I will lay out some own thoughts and I will present many ideas of others. I don’t think that I managed to reconcile all these lines of thoughts into a concise theory. I hope the loose ends in my line of reasoning inspire the interested reader to make their own connections and perhaps derive a better explanation.
If you are a lockdown advocate and seek to discredit me, you might be happy that I finally come to what lockdown sceptics are frequently associated with: Conspiracy theories. In the eyes of large parts of the public, anyone who questions that lockdowns were grounded on scientific evidence and that we just keep “following the science” is labelled a conspiracy theorist. But given that governments have not even performed a cost-benefit analysis on lockdowns, and that they based their decision purely on epidemiological predictions that have been proven wrong, it is safe to say that lockdowns are not a result of scientific rigour. This lack of evidence leaves many people desperate enough to turn to the wildest conspiracy theories which don’t seem less plausible to many than the official communication that there is no alternative to lockdowns. Just as lockdownists’ propaganda (e.g. “2 weeks to flatten the curve”), anti-lockdown conspiracy theories tend to rely on unrealistic assumptions from which conclusions are derived, sometimes in a logical manner, but out of touch with reality. It is the same principle of “crap in, crap out” when researchers publish a study on how effective lockdowns are that fundamentally relies on the assumption that lockdowns are effective as when conspiracy theorists state lockdowns were pushed for by the pharma lobby in order to sell vaccines relying on assumptions such as perfect cooperation between competing companies and all major political parties. If your conclusions are based on unrealistic assumptions, they will not be of any relevance to the real world. Personally, I try to dismiss any premature conclusions and therefore disagree with most conspiracy theorists, many of whom, in my opinion, have done more harm than good for the anti-lockdown movement. But we should be cautious not to let dismissing unrealistic conspiracy theories make us incapable of developing any theories. Theories are as crucial for good science as is evidence. This includes theories about conspiracies. But in the quest for knowledge, we need to focus more on developing and testing theories than on promoting them. The question of why most countries locked down can only be addressed by theories for now. I hope scientists will test each of these theories and discard those that are evidently wrong.
Not ready for this
Before digging deeper into possible reasons that could have contributed to the spread of lockdowns across the world, let me reinforce something I was not sure about when I started my research. The type of large-scale social distancing policies we have been enduring for nearly 2 years has not been an emergency plan that was lying in the drawers of public health authorities waiting to be executed during the next pandemic. Until doing this research, I thought I was just too ignorant to know about lockdown plans. Now it seems to me as if all epidemiological guidance from before 2020 was just discarded with the pandemic. You are very welcome, dear reader, to submit pre-2020 papers that suggested 2020-style policies and I will update this section.
In October 2019, the WHO published a report on the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions for fighting epidemic or pandemic influenza. Now I can almost hear how readers will object to how this is relevant here because Covid Is not influenza and only conspiracy theorists would compare them. Well, the comparison is not that far off. While SARS-CoV-2 is certainly more deadly than the most recent strains of influenza, remember that the “Spanish Flu” was an influenza pandemic. (Update February 2022: It seems Omicron is not “certainly more deadly” than influenza) When the WHO made a report about how to fight an influenza pandemic, they were not thinking of the seasonal, “interpandemic” strains of Influenza. Just like SARS-CoV-2, influenza is an airborne infection relatively harmless for most people, but dangerous for some and both can be transmitted in the presymptomatic phase. The reason why there are mostly publications on influenza pandemics is that they have been more frequent and many experts expected another influenza pandemic rather than a coronavirus pandemic.
In this document, they conditionally recommend the use of face masks even though it is stated that evidence is very limited and the recommendation is based purely on “mechanistic plausibility”. Furthermore, it is not differed between different settings (e.g. indoors/outdoors) and it seems from the overall direction of the paper that the authors are thinking of recommended face masks rather than mandated. An unconditional recommendation is given to face masks worn by symptomatic people. This needs to be seen in combination with the WHO not recommending quarantine even for exposed individuals. They write “there is no obvious rationale for this measure” as there was not enough evidence. Voluntary (!!!) isolation of sick people is recommended, however. It is clear that the WHO did not consider a lockdown for everyone a recommended solution if even a quarantine for exposed individuals was not recommended. Internal travel restrictions were recommended only in the early phase of an extraordinarily severe pandemic. “Border closures may be considered only by small island nations in severe pandemics and epidemics, but must be weighed against potentially serious economic consequences.” In 2007, the WHO published “Ethical Considerations in developing a public health response to pandemic influenza”: “Plans related to the isolation of symptomatic individuals and quarantine of their contacts should be voluntary to the greatest extent possible; mandatory measures should only be instituted as a last resort, when voluntary measures cannot reasonably be expected to succeed, and the failure to institute mandatory measures is likely to have a substantial impact on public health;”.
The German national pandemic plan from 2016 also only speaks about voluntary isolation and quarantine. There is no historical example of anything alike the lockdowns of 2020/21. During the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, China imposed a mandatory quarantine on close contacts of infected people. Li et al. (2013) analyse whether this was an efficient policy and found that while the quarantine measure did succeed in delaying the peak of the epidemic, the costs outweighed the benefits. Less than a decade later, it reads unreal how scientists from Chinese institutions wrote in 2013 how “such strict preventative measures might cause misunderstanding over the justification of losing one’s movement freedom for a week”. They questioned the justification of a one week quarantine of close contacts of infected people in the middle of a pandemic! That gives an impression of pre-2020 standards in public health.
I found one practical recent example of stricter enforcement of social distancing measures for a very limited time during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Sierra Leone imposed two three-day national stay-at-home orders and some more local ones in 2014 and 2015 (see here, here and here). These emergency measures have been referred to as “lockdowns” at the time. According to the sources I found, people could still go outdoors but had to stay in the vicinity of their homes.
In their 2007 publication “Pandemic Influenza, Ethics, Law, and the Public’s Health”, Gostin and Berkman write: “The standard of public health necessity requires, at a minimum, that the subject of the compulsory intervention must actually pose a threat to the community. In the context of infectious diseases, for example, public health authorities could not impose personal control measures (e.g., mandatory physical examination, treatment, or isolation) unless the person was actually contagious or, at least, there was reasonable suspicion of contagion.”
Thus all evidence I found backs my feeling (confirmation bias might be strong here) that indeed “we were not prepared for this”. Public health authorities did prepare for a pandemic, however, and everyone knew that a pandemic would happen at some point. Pandemics are a form of natural disaster we cannot completely avoid. Just like earthquakes, we need to have in mind that they will eventually happen. What we were not prepared for was a quick switch to authoritarian rule of every aspect of our lives in countries that had valued individual freedom until March 2020. But if lockdowns partly go against former emergency plans, why is it that these rules were applied in most countries nonetheless?
First, I would like to have a look at some practical aspects of stay-at-home orders in particular. As stay-at-home orders are meant to ban “non-essential” contacts, it would be straightforward to put a ban on contacts instead of keeping citizens from leaving their houses. With further risk assessment, it might even be more proportionate to only ban contacts for individuals that have likely been exposed to the virus with those who haven’t, or apply strict rules only to contacts with those who are at serious risk from the virus. Proponents of stay-at-home orders argue that contact bans are more difficult to enforce because private houses underlie special protection from law enforcement in most countries. As the authoritarian logic of stay-at-home orders comes with a deep-seated mistrust towards individuals, enforcement possibilities are crucial. “Full lockdowns” including stay-at-home are convenient for governments as they implicitly include other policies governments used to respond to the pandemic. There is no need to regulate gatherings or events as it is a necessary condition to leave the house before participating in an event. In addition, policy makers are less prone to objections on the relative proportionality of containment measures, i.e. debates on why certain businesses have to close while certain other businesses remain open. While policies such as the closing of certain businesses, school closures, or the cancellation of cultural events always affect particular economic interests that are usually organised, the opponents of stay-at-home orders are not organised (We should be!). This might be a reason why relatively little resistance was shown against stay-at-home orders. Even for business closures, a similar logic might apply. Where all non-essential businesses were closed, many business owners believed the slogans of “we’re all in this together” and didn’t protest. There have been some quarrels about why some stores count as essential and others don’t though, and many have realized that they have been disadvantaged compared to e-commerce companies such as Amazon. Still, seeing the stores left and right to their own closed gave some store owners a feeling of fairness, and the public messaging has successfully made people believe that “everyone is doing their part”, while in fact giving no other choice.
Early estimations and lockdowns
As mentioned in my discussion on Flaxman et al.’s influential paper in the “effectiveness” section, early predictions largely overestimated the dangerousness of the new virus. Researchers from the Imperial College London have been among the most influential players pushing for strict non-pharmaceutical interventions. On 16 March, Ferguson et al. published their report “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand” which was cited over 2000 times according to Google Scholar. As it is stated in the abstract, Ferguson et al. “present the results of epidemiological modelling which has informed policymaking in the UK and other countries in recent weeks”. Here is how they saw the trolley problem: “Two fundamental strategies are possible: (a) mitigation, which focuses on slowing but not necessarily stopping epidemic spread –reducing peak healthcare demand while protecting those most at risk of severe disease from infection, and (b) suppression, which aims to reverse epidemic growth, reducing case numbers to low levels and maintaining that situation indefinitely. Each policy has major challenges. We find that that optimal mitigation policies (combining home isolation of suspect cases, home quarantine of those living in the same household as suspect cases, and social distancing of the elderly and others at most risk of severe disease) might reduce peak healthcare demand by 2/3 and deaths by half. However, the resulting mitigated epidemic would still likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems (most notably intensive care units) being overwhelmed many times over. For countries able to achieve it, this leaves suppression as the preferred policy option.” Ferguson et al. acknowledged “that interventions will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more) – given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed”.
10 days later, Walker et al. from the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team published another report “The Global Impact of COVID-19 and Strategies for Mitigation and Suppression” stating: “We estimate that in the absence of interventions, COVID-19 would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. Mitigation strategies focussing on shielding the elderly (60% reduction in social contacts) and slowing but not interrupting transmission (40% reduction in social contacts for wider population) could reduce this burden by half, saving 20 million lives, but we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed. This effect is likely to be most severe in lower income settings where capacity is lowest: our mitigated scenarios lead to peak demand for critical care beds in a typical low-income setting outstripping supply by a factor of 25, in contrast to a typical high-income setting where this factor is 7.”
With hindsight, we know that their predictions have been terribly wrong. There have been local shortages in ICU capacities. Examples that come to my mind are the first weeks of the pandemic in Lombardy and Madrid. There are examples of overwhelmed hospitals in low-income countries as well (e.g. India), but Covid-19-related deaths are dwarfed by the devastating effects of policy interventions including a dramatic increase in hunger. There are many sources for criticism of Ferguson et al. (2020)’s predictions, see e.g. Allen (2021).
Surely, Ferguson et al.’s projections contributed to nearly all countries choosing the options of suppression rather than mitigation. Nearly all countries maintained some restrictions through the summers of 2020 and 2021 despite very few infections and no realistic chance of overwhelming hospitals in the next weeks. I have not yet found out how this modelling translated into the “2 weeks to flatten the curve” style messaging that was over the media in March of 2020. To what degree was this campaign based on wrong predictions based on reasonable assumptions at the time and to what degree was it based on straight lies? Or did politicians and media misinterpret the models? Or did those advocating for “2 weeks to flatten the curve” initially wanted just this and changed their motivation over the 2 weeks? Probably all four options are correct for different people. Quite possibly, many of those in favour of lockdowns did not believe that they could win a majority for their cause. Regarding the spread of lockdowns from China across the world, the main author of Imperial College’s paper, Neil Ferguson, said in December 2020: “It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with [lockdowns] in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.” It is noteworthy that the lockdown in Wuhan lasted for about 2 months when most European countries decided on restrictions that were then often meant to last for 2, sometimes 3 weeks.
Overestimation of the infection fatality is a typical pattern at the beginning of an epidemic as widespread testing is not yet common and only cases with severe symptoms are reported while infections with little or no symptoms are not. Thus the infection fatality rate is inflated because the denominator of total cases is underestimated. Unlike in most historic settings, the ongoing pandemic is the first one in the age of social media. Early predictions spread like wildfire and the economics of attention prevented the updated, more nuanced and less spectacular predictions to replace the original apocalyptic ones. The number of views is what counts in the internet economy and strong emotions such as fear generate interest and thus more clicks or views.
In March 2020, 80 percent of OECD countries adopted the same “lockdown” NPIs within 2 weeks. Sebhatu et al. (2020) show the main predictors of whether a country implements an NPI were population density and the number of spatially proximate countries that already adopted the policy. Variables not predicting adoption of NPIs included the number of cases or deaths, population over 65 years old, or hospital beds per capita in the country. Sebhatu et al. explain “When the efficacy of a policy is uncertain, the number of earlier adopters can serve as a form of “social validation” of its usefulness that need not be founded in actual usefulness. Furthermore, if the policy becomes imbued with a positive normative value—that is, adoption is considered virtuous—the act of adoption signals value beyond the usefulness of the policy itself and therefore drives further adoption”. As Frijters writes “The emotional interconnectedness of the whole world shone out in this crisis, as evidenced by the quick and ubiquitous contagion of mass hysteria through social media and the popular media in February-March 2020. (…) This is all evidence of contagion of emotions and beliefs, turning individuals into fearful crowds.”
Overestimation of individual risk
In the German Socio-Economic Panel, conducted between April and July 2020, participants were asked for their estimated probability of personally experiencing a life-threatening infection with SARS-Cov-2 within the next 12 months (Hertwig et al. 2020). The representative survey found a mean perceived risk of 26% and a median of 20%. Both numbers are astonishingly high compared to the actual population risk. For comparison: As of 12 July 2021, 91,233 persons died following an infection with the novel coronavirus. In sum, this is equal to 2.4% of people who tested positive and 0.1% of Germany’s population. The median German is still under 50 years of age. 0.002% of under 50-year olds have died with Covid-19 (deaths from here, population from here) Sure, some more have suffered a life-threatening infection. Unfortunately, I could find no data on the cumulative number of hospitalised Covid patients in Germany. In Austria, 1.3% of all people who tested positive have been submitted to intensive care. This equals 0.09% of the total Austrian population (total infections taken from here). In total, 0.12% of Austrians died after a Covid-19 diagnosis. Adding the surviving ICU patients gives an estimate for the population prevalence of life-threatening infections of 0.18%. That is more than 100 times less than the mean personal estimate of a representative sample of Germans. Similarly absurd overestimations of the individual perceived risk have been found in the United States where in January 2021, under 40 years-olds still reported an average 11% probability of dying from coronavirus.
As I wrote in the section on effectiveness, meta-studies estimate the actual infection fatality rate (IFR) to be far below 1 percent for the entire population. The IFR is the proportion of deaths from infection compared to the total number of infected individuals, diagnosed or not. This may not be confused with the case fatality rate (CFR) that only includes diagnosed cases and is therefore highly sensitive to changes in the frequency of testing. The IFR depends on the properties of the disease, but it is dependent on the quality of treatment too. It also depends on the demography of a population. A virus like SARS-CoV-2 that is mostly dangerous to elderly people is likely to have a higher IFR in countries with an aged population than in those with a young population.
On 6 July, 86% of Covid-19 deaths in Germany were aged 70 or above. 1% was under 50 (update 16 February 2022: 84% over 70 and 1.6% under 50). As described in the “effectiveness” section, these numbers must be interpreted with a grain of salt, because some German authorities have reported people who died without any causal relationship to Covid-19, only because they had a positive test. This does not necessarily change the age distribution however. There are arguments why it may be easier to suppress a pathogen instead of targeting the protection of risk groups. But I do not believe that people make their best decisions when they are insanely misinformed. The fear-driven communication that took over established media, social media and government communication has produced unprecedented irrational health anxiety. Young people never had a high risk of falling seriously ill from coronavirus. The irrational fear is not merely the result of organic contagion of fear on social networks, but has been actively incited by governments. In the United Kingdom, for example, behavioural scientists from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergency (SAGE), a public institution advising the government, suggested on 22 March 2020: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.“
As of 2 July 2021, 99.95% of the world population have survived the deadliest pandemic in our lifetime. The world population continued growing during the pandemic. The threat is hardly of a new quality, but our reaction is. How can we react proportionately to a threat that is so ridiculously overestimated by the general public? If you decide on how to battle a disease that has a chance of far below 1 percent to kill an average grown-up but you think it has a chance of 20 percent, you will not end up with an optimal solution. It might reinforce the authoritarian nature of policies as many people are aware that most people’s personal risk to die from Covid-19 are negligible. In the minds of the misinformed, fear-driven median voter, these persons are acting irrational and have to be forced into line. In fact, I’ve heard many otherwise reasonable people in Germany referring to anyone who strictly follows Covid regulations and recommendations as “reasonable” (vernünftig) and to those who e.g. travelled during 2020 or went to a party as “unreasonable” (unvernünftig). More than once I was baffled how perfectly normal behaviour was so casually called “unreasonable”. But if you believe the virus has a chance of over 26% to threaten your life (as half of Germans did according to the mentioned study), every social interaction means putting your life at stake. The discrepancy between perceived and actual risk indicates that many people are driven by irrational fear.
Like arachnophobia makes grown-up people leave the room when they see a tiny, harmless spider, Covid-age germophobia makes people lock themselves in their room because of a tiny, harmless virus. Clearly not harmless for everybody, but for most; similar to insect stings, that are dangerous for a small share of the population, but not for most. When I was a kid, I was scared of wasps and bees. I don’t remember if I was ever stung by one when I was little. Either I avoided it altogether, or I was too young to remember. Often, I would ruin family meals by panicking over the tiny wasp that just wanted her fair share. Today I know that these fears were irrational, and I think what helped me most to overcome it was being stung by a wasp. Now it happened a few times and I know it’s nothing worth ruining lunch for (but I still avoid getting stung, of course).
Unlike other fears, the fear of Covid was not corrected by the society, but reinforced. It is also seen as virtueful to be scared. In earlier times, we looked up to the brave and fearless, but all of the sudden, people could get social appraisal for minimising minimal risks. Many people find it irrational to hear me say that I’m not scared at all to catch Covid because I am young and healthy and therefore, they feel morally right to coerce me to follow the rules. They think they are right in forcing them on me like they would keep a drunk person from steering a car or crossing a busy street. Based on their misinformed judgement, they are acting rational and ethical.
Revising this text in February of 2022, I should note that I see much less fear in the past weeks, likely because of the highly contagious, but mild Omicron variant. It’s harder to remain the same level of fear after you and most people you know have caught Covid and all of you are fine. Omicron basically worked like an exposure therapy for many. Like I lost my fear of wasps by getting stung, many germophobes lost their fear of Covid by getting infected.
What could explain the overestimation of risk both on the individual and collective level? As reddit user Sgt_Nicholas_Angel argues that after the lockdowns emerged from wrong predictions, they were a “perfect storm”, self-reinforcing, specifically in combination with masks: “Everyone is staying at home as much as possible, they are masking up simply to step outdoors, and they are isolated from everyone except their immediate household. What else do they have? The news is the average person’s only connection to the outside world. This might be your local governor’s updates, twitter, or the television. There you will be bombarded with the worst covid cases, numbers that are getting worse by the day, and constantly being told to stay at home and that if you go outside without a mask you will probably die. Without lockdowns, you can be reassured by coworkers, friends, and family. Without masks, you can see that people aren’t distancing or paying attention and they are still alive. With both, you have nothing to reassure you and you fall deeper into fear, but it is not human nature to be isolated and you begin to blame others for your prolonged isolation. Pretty soon, this blame gets shifted onto those anti-maskers, and the media reinforced this with false comparisons and more fear. We now have three ways lockdowns were allowed to continue: separating people from their social group, masking everyone taking a step outdoors, and demonizing anybody that dared to disagree with what was being done. This perfect storm allowed lockdowns to continue much longer than they ever should have. (…) In conclusion, lockdowns were allowed to go on this long because of the initial belief in the two-week doctrine, the enforcement of mask wearing, the isolation and shaming of dissenters, and now the condemning of vaccine hesitancy.”
Indeed, the data I collected on lockdown policies in Europe indicates a relationship between mask mandates and lockdowns. During the second wave, outdoor mask mandates were almost only applied in countries that also implemented some sort of confinement policy, often in the form of night curfews. Mask mandates and lockdowns could be correlated because both are strict measures aiming at the same goal. Governments who are specifically motivated to fight the pandemic and specifically uncaring about civil liberties apply both measures. Yet, masks also contribute to a self-reinforcing mechanism that keeps other restrictions in place too. First, they have a strong impact as a signal of danger and contribute to maintaining a high level of health anxiety in the population that then translates into support for other draconian measures. Second, as face masks have become the main symbol of fighting the virus, they can signalise that their wearer is associated with the same (unconsciously) political movement as the #stayhome campaigners. You cannot tell who wears a mask in the street due to their affiliation to this movement and who wears one because they are forced to. (Unless you’re as crazy as I who wrote “end the mask mandate! smiling is healthy!” on my mask.)
This points to crowd effects or “groupthink”. Schippers and Rus (2020) define: “Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes sub-optimal decisions, usually spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible. Oftentimes, these groups develop an overly narrow framing of the problem at hand, leading to tunnel vision in the search for possible solutions.” This overly narrow framing, in the case of the pandemic, was minimising the number of infections and deaths. Even when individuals develop doubts, the group shows a strong escalation to commitment bias.
Joffe (2021) addresses these issues of social psychology further in his brilliant article “Rethinking the Lockdown Groupthink”. Several cognitive biases have influenced our view of the pandemic and were re-inforced through groupthink: “Identifiable lives bias included the identifiable victim effect (we ignore hidden “statistical” deaths reported at the population level), and identifiable cause effect (we prioritize efforts to save lives from a known cause even if more lives would be saved through alternative responses). Present bias made us prefer immediate benefits to even larger benefits in the future (steps that would prevent more deaths over the longer term are less attractive). The proximity and vividness of COVID-19 cases (i.e., availability and picture superiority bias), and anchoring bias (we adhere to our initial hypothesis, and disregard evidence that disproves our favorite theory) affected our reasoning. Superstitious bias, that action is better than non-action even when evidence is lacking, reduced anxiety. Escalation of commitment bias, investing more resources into a set course of action even in the face of evidence there are better options, made us stand by prior decisions.”
Cognitive biases are powerful in explaining irrational human behaviour. Much of the research on cognitive biases builds on the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two pioneers of cognitive psychology and perhaps the first and most influential behavioural economists. They investigated several cognitive biases and heuristics we apply in our judgement. Their prospect theory has challenged the perfectly rational, utility-maximising homo oeconomicus as a good model for actual human economic behaviour. One of the cognitive biases they studied is the availability bias which means that people’s estimate of the relative frequency of something is influenced by the mental availability of examples. People overestimate the risk of terrorist attacks for instance because examples of terrorist acts are easily available in our minds. Statistics on infections and deaths with SARS-CoV-2 are highly available and covered by the media. Possibly, the representation and thus high mental availability leads to an overestimation of the individual risk of falling seriously ill.
Kahneman and Tversky developed the prospect theory that showed, among other things, how people treat losses and gains differently and how we are more motivated to reduce losses than to increase gains. Prospect theory was introduced with a highly relevant experiment: In Tversky and Kahneman (1981) students were introduced to the scenario of an “unusual Asian disease” that is expected to kill 600 people. Two groups of students were asked to choose between two possible policy responses which were framed differently. The first group was given the following choice: “If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?” 72% of respondents opted for the less risky alternative. The other group was given the following choice: “If program C is adopted 400 people will die. If program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor?” With this framing, 78% opted for the risky alternative. Note that the expected number of fatalities is equal in all four scenarios thus homo oeconomicus would be indifferent. But the majority of respondents showed more willingness to adopt a risky program when the problem was framed as one of avoiding loss. Prospect theory has been mostly applied in economics, see here for some examples of its application in marketing.
Following Schippers and Rus (2020), this cognitive bias could contribute to explain why most people support risky policies whose effects are highly uncertain in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. The framing of this policy choice is one of avoiding losses. All major news websites have quickly included daily scores of infections and deaths on their homepages. Countries are called a failure if their number of deaths is high and a success story if the number of deaths is low. “The problem has tended to be framed narrowly as one of avoiding deaths caused by the new coronavirus, as opposed to being framed more broadly as one of public health, or even more broadly as one of societal well-being — with all that it entails, including a healthy economy, public physical and mental health, social justice, etc. This narrow problem framing, in turn, may have influenced information elaboration and analysis of the situation and, paradoxically, may have led to riskier policy decisions than a broader problem framing would have.”
Schippers (2020) is another good summary of some of the psychological biases that influence societies to decide on lockdown even though evidence suggests that the costs outweigh the benefits. She relates a range of well-known psychological effects to lockdown measures: Prospect theory shows that people are more motivated to avoid losses than to achieve gains. As lockdown measures are framed to prevent death (even though there is poor empirical evidence that they do), which is the highest cost imaginable, this motivates people to adhere to the rules. Media and politicians often framed decisions to lockdown as false dilemmas e.g. between lives and livelihoods. At the same time, people have a tendency to seek information that confirms their beliefs and ignoring information that disconfirms their beliefs (Schippers and Rus 2020). This confirmation bias has surely influenced my own research, too, so I would be happy for suggestions of sources that contradict my beliefs.
Another good summary of the crowd dynamics is given by Paul Frijters here: He explains the overwhelming support for totalitarian policies with one of the key elements of crowd thinking. “The crowd wants to feel one and does not tolerate dissent.” Individual characteristics like status became less important as the crowd was united to fight the invisible enemy. He characterises much of the crowd behaviour as “virtue signalling” as overall effects on health and wellbeing are ignored and everything is only measured by how it could prevent coronavirus infections. This crowd effect was reinforced by commonly used war analogies (e.g. Emanuel Macron’s “Nous sommes en guerre”). Regarding this, he writes:
“Yet, the analogy with a war effort is really what it looks like. There is the same unquestioning presumption that the cause is right, that the fight will be won, that naysayers and non-combatants are basically traitors, and that there are technical solutions that will quickly overcome any apparent problem or collateral damage. There is also the same disregard and disinterest on the part of individuals in the enormity of the collateral damage, either to their own kids, people in other countries, their own futures, etc. There is even the same fatalism about the inevitability of the path they are on. These are individuals somehow enjoying not being individuals.”
Authoritarianism and cognitive dissonance
Across the world, governments gained popularity at least during the first months of the pandemic (Yam et al. 2020) due to the “rally ‘round the flag” effect that implies people increase their support for their leaders in times of crisis. But even when revising this text in February 2022, it holds true that candidates who supported strict lockdowns won solid majorities in several national and subnational elections over the past 2 years. Interestingly, governments in countries that did not lock down as strictly, e.g. in the Nordic countries, receive public support, too. One explanation I could imagine is that as individual citizens, we realise that we do not have much power. Of course, the people as a whole have a lot of power in a democracy, but each individual vote does not count much. Sure, we can find many examples of governments making policy choices that a clear majority of their electorate opposes (though usually not in election years). But much more than tax policy or military interventions, lockdown policies depend on people’s compliance. If a stay-at-home order would just be ignored by 80 percent, there is little a government could do. If everyone else obliges by the law on the other hand and you find yourself being the only person on the street, you will probably get into trouble with law enforcement. But then, what is more unpleasant? Joining in the #stayhome mob and virtue signalling how you are a good citizen? Or realising that your fellow citizens just decided to lock you in even though you have not committed any crime and raise your voice against the mob? I assume that the huge support for lockdowns, even when it became clear that they were not as effective as initially thought, has a lot to do with those who initially opposed them trying to reduce cognitive dissonance. Does it make sense to be banned from going on a walk on your own? Obviously not. But if the majority says so, I better think it does instead of feeling miserable and angry.
Schippers (2020) elaborates on this topic: “Cognitive dissonance will create tension between the belief that the sacrifices people make are necessary and the belief that some of these behaviors may be causing more harm than good in terms of mental health. The unpleasant tension stemming from conflicting beliefs then leads people to decide that the lockdown must be useful, and people also try to get doubters to reconsider their position, even in the face of clear evidence of overwhelming negative side effects.” She writes that “as the virus outbreak and media coverage spread fear and anxiety, superstition, cognitive dissonance reduction and conspiracy theories are ways to find meaning and reduce anxiety. These behavioral aspects may play a role in the continuance of lockdown decisions.” Schippers cites classical psychological experiments that show that “the effects of framing on the extent to which people obey authorities, even if the orders given are against their better (moral) judgment has been under investigation for decades”: The Asch conformity experiment, the Milgram obedience experiment, and the Stanford Prison experiment.
Foad et al. (2021) asked a sample of 212 UK residents about their attitudes about lockdowns in June and December of 2020. Consistent with larger polls, a majority supported measures such as banning public gatherings and closing pubs and restaurants, or restricting outdoor exercise to once a day. Interestingly, the respondents estimated the costs for of these interventions the individual and the society to outweigh the benefits, only on the dimension of social relations, the benefits were seen to outweigh the costs. The sample is rather small and not representative, so we should treat the results with caution. Yet it seems many people were aware of the disproportionate costs of lockdowns and supported them nonetheless. The surveyed individuals agreed to statements showing that they used the policy response to guide their judgement of the thread of Covid-19. On a scale from -5 to +5, an average approval of around 2 was given to the statement “It’s living under a lockdown that has made me realize how big the Covid-19 threat is.”. The statement “the government had no other choice but to put lockdown in place” received an average level of agreement of 3 on a scale from 5 to -5. This means, in the main author’s words, “people supported lockdowns, in essence, because they existed”.
Those who fail to cope by adjusting their views find themselves helpless in the face of forced social distancing which increases passiveness. A corruption scandal makes people angry; higher taxes make people angry and usually touch organised interests, e.g. trade associations. Angry and organised people are the type that goes to the street and overthrows governments. But enforced social distancing made people feel lonely and isolated and has caused millions to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety rather than anger. Depressed and anxious people are rather passive. Depressed persons would rather blame themselves than the government. Depressed and anxious people lie in bed all day and watch Netflix, but they rarely go out to protest. Thus the miserable psychological condition of large parts of the society further reinforces the policies that contribute to this misery. It is a form of collective depression. At the same time, there are others who comfortably settle in their “home office” and do not want to return to a pre-pandemic normal life that included having to deal with annoying co-workers and traffic jams or crowded public transport.
Of course, cognitive biases and groupthink do not only shape the behaviour of citizens but of politicians as well. For example, they might have a biased view of normal social activity as they are among the most socially active people living in the capital cities. Just by driving through London or Berlin and seeing millions in the street, they are likely to underestimate the degree of social distancing in the general society where all the “invisible” meetups behind the closed doors of e.g. bars or gyms do not take place. Moreover, politicians are expected to be leaders which can bias them to do rather too much than too little. They have little interest in admitting they were wrong as it could result in bad press and worse election results. Therefore, virtually everywhere where infections go down, public communication attributes the fall to the hardest measures introduced. Even when this claim is factually wrong because infections already went down before restrictions were escalated, this narrative is hold up, e.g. in Germany. When infections fail to fall despite strict restrictions, blame is given either to the public not abiding by the measures or to a new variant even when there is no evidence it is significantly more dangerous.
It shall not be left unmentioned how the inherently violent nature of lockdown rules has been masked by the rhetoric used. We were told to fight the virus and the French president even declared war against the virus. But the nature of a virus makes fighting it equal to fighting humans. A virus does not even count as a living being as it fully depends on its host. To “survive”, it becomes a part of us. Viruses are inseparably connected to human life. And as it is impossible to separate them, every attack on the virus is an attack on human life, too. The virus does not get locked down, but its carriers who happen to be us. A “war on a virus” is effectively a war on humans as it is our nature to be part of the virus’ troops. Actually, most of us are non-combatants. But the lockdownists see no difference and they attack us all as potential hosts. The notion of every person being a potential threat to every other person’s health has fundamentally changed our society. “Homo homini lupus est” has been the argument for the government’s monopoly of violence since Thomas Hobbes. “Homo homini virus est” has become the argument for an escalation of government power over all aspects of our lives.
The authorities we are asked to obey have often been disguised by the slogan “follow the science”. As researcher and philosopher Matthew Crawford puts it: “The phrase “follow the science” has a false ring to it. That is because science doesn’t lead anywhere. It can illuminate various courses of action, by quantifying the risks and specifying the tradeoffs. But it cannot make the necessary choices for us. By pretending otherwise, decision-makers can avoid taking responsibility for the choices they make on our behalf.”. In this context, I found it interesting to read how an MIT study criticised anti-mask groups for believing that science is a process rather than an institution.
Where it all began
To understand the diffusion of unprecedented and previously unaccepted human rights derogation in the name of public health, we will need to understand the history of early 2020. It was on 23 January 2020 when the Chinese government imposed a lockdown on Wuhan and other cities in the Hubei province. At that time, the world was stunned by the decisiveness of Chinese authorities to contain the virus but few could imagine similar measures being implemented in liberal democracies. Even though the lockdown was not in accordance with WHO recommendations, WHO’s director-general praised China’s reaction on 30 January 2020. China reported steeply falling infection numbers (which might be false) in February and other countries began to consider following its example. On 23 February 2020, Italy put 11 villages under quarantine while still allowing for circulation within these villages. From 8 March 2020, Northern Italians needed a special form to leave their house stating a good reason for being outside. This rule was extended to the entire nation the next day. As British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said in December 2020: “It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with [lockdowns] in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.”
I pointed out many aspects of human psychology that could explain the persistence of lockdowns, but was fear really the only impetus for the lockdown domino? Now we are finally approaching the area of conspiracy theories. There is evidence that China deliberately influenced the public debate in Western countries. Many fake twitter accounts have spread fear of the virus while praising the Chinese approach and urging Western governments to adopt it. Propaganda activity was reported in Italy in particular. Michael Senger writes: “On March 9, Italy, the first major European country to sign onto Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, took the WHO’s advice and became the first country outside China to lockdown. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had long advocated closer ties with China. Chinese experts arrived in Italy on March 12 and two days later advised a tighter lockdown: “There are still too many people and behaviors on the street to improve.” On March 19, they repeated that Italy’s lockdown was “not strict enough,” saying: “Here in Milan, the hardest hit area by COVID-19, there isn’t a very strict lockdown … We need every citizen to be involved in the fight of COVID-19 and follow this policy. Italy was simultaneously bombarded with Chinese disinformation. From March 11 to 23, roughly 46% of tweets with the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (Go China, go Italy) and 37% of those with the hashtag #grazieCina (thank you China) came from bots.”
So while there is certainly not only one reason why such an unprecedented wave of authoritarian and totalitarian policies with little evidence of their efficiency swept across the globe, we have to consider Chinese politics as one driver behind the contagion of fear and appeal to authority that eventually became self-feeding. In the emerging “New Cold War” between China and the United States, it is potentially a huge gain in soft power that nearly the entire world adopted an authoritarian style of policy that dismisses individual liberty, a core element of identification for “Western culture for a collectivist and authoritarian approach to public health that originated in China.
Writing this, over 2 years have passed since the Wuhan lockdown. We have become used to calling it an “easing” of restrictions when we are allowed to see some more people and have almost forgotten that there was a time when our governments did not interfere with whom we would meet. Sweden was often referred to with adjectives such as “completely open” despite not allowing public gatherings of more than eight people over several weeks. Before March 2020, hardly anyone would have called a society “open” that does not allow concerts or any other types of large events. Sweden has put bans on public life that would have been regarded as insanely authoritarian in 2019 if it were the only country that did this while the rest of the world remained normal. Sweden was only “open” throughout 2020 and 2021 by the standard of the rest of the world who escalated to mass confinement, bans on showing your face, and complete closures of everything deemed “inessential”. We have become used to the atrocities of lockdown and our rhetoric changed accordingly. As Sgt_Nicholas_Angel_ writes in another post on Lockdown Skepticism : “The default state going into this was “remain open unless there is evidence not to be.” Now it has become “remain closed unless there is evidence to open up.”
Everyone who values freedom has to be cautious not to accept complete government control over our private lives by simply getting used to it and now celebrating the easing of lockdowns. In my eyes, the only way to prevent lockdowns from becoming a normal policy in the tool kit of governments is to reject this “new normal” and claim every liberty we had until mid-March 2020. We need to build institutions that guarantee these liberties. I thought we had these institutions in European countries. But our constitutions and courts were not strong enough to resist the lockdown groupthink. Everyone who supports the total switch away from individual liberty and responsibility to a system of perfect control of the society over the individual should be frank about their anti-liberal stance. We can “follow the science” when we want to boil an egg, but mathematical models cannot decide for us in which society we want to live in. I referenced a lot of scientific studies that point to the downsides of lockdowns but none of these studies proves that we should not lockdown. Personally, I put high value on freedom. If you put more value on safety you could come to different conclusions looking at the same data. I hope we can return to a society that guarantees fundamental rights such as free movement or the right to education. We decide ourselves how we want to live. I wish we did so based on facts and rational thinking and with mutual respect. I agree with Colin Foad’s assessment that “the arguments around NPI efficacy won’t reach a consensus in the near future, partly because so many people are already too strongly committed to certain positions, partly because the sheer complexity of the analyses leaves a lot of room for researcher interpretation, and partly because some physical and psychological effects simply cannot be directly quantified anyway “
When lockdown policies are not the result of a rational analysis of their costs and benefits, what was it that caused governments across the globe to turn their societies upside down? This question cannot yet be answered with precision. Many factors could have been at work feeding to a self-reinforcing cycle of fear and authoritarian response both in individuals and in crowds. Early predictions over-estimated the risk, both established and social media generated attention with fear as a strong emotion. Potentially, this collective panic has been pushed for by some media or politicians (namely China), but to me, it seems to have been mostly self-reinforcing from very early on. Groupthink evoked conformist behaviour to win the “war against the virus”, an enemy inseparable from ourselves. Even many sceptics adapted to the “new normal” of lockdowns to avoid cognitive dissonance while others were pacified by depression and anxiety. Deciders have masked the incertitude of their political decisions by claims to “follow the science” but to make progress as a society, we need to acknowledge the political and ethical dimension of lockdowns for which science can give no definite answer.