The Great Barrington Debate and The Inconsistent Case For Lockdowns 

by | Oct 23, 2020

Ending the lockdowns is not a wild or radical theory; it is just calling for a return to the way pandemics were managed in the past. To ditch this cruel experiment with society and return to what works.

The Great Barrington Declaration has ignited a much-needed debate about the efficacy of lockdown policies and the most effective way to reach herd immunity. Around the world, thousands of scientists and concerned citizens have indicated their support for the ideas put forward in the Declaration. End the lockdowns, allow society to return to normal, and protect the most vulnerable. With all the talk about this being a radical and profound idea, in actuality, this is a pretty traditional way of dealing with diseases.

The burden of proof is on those who wish to continue what seems to be a failed experiment with lockdowns. However, the rhetoric of those critical of the Great Barrington Declaration has shown a concerning amount of inconsistency. We are told that lockdowns are only temporary, but also we need to hunker down for the long haul. Lockdowns are only to relieve hospital capacity but also we need to stay locked down until cases are lower. We shouldn’t reopen society but also society is already reopening so the Great Barrington Declaration is baseless. Don’t politicize Covid-19 but also we should be wary of the Great Barrington Declaration because Libertarians like it.

All this does is provide a disservice to the impartial observer who wishes to weigh the case for lockdowns as a viable policy. Society would be better served if both sides simply laid their case out in full candor and confidence to be rigorously challenged.

The Great Barrington Declaration’s Cards Are On the Table

If one wanted to find the motivation and underpinnings for the reopening of society advocated by the Great Barrington Declaration, it is pretty clear. It calls for a return to the tried and true methods which societies have dealt with pandemics. Lockdowns and the policies they entail are not based on historical evidence.

The late doctor Donald Henderson, who led the eradication of smallpox, published a paper along with others detailing a tried and true response to pandemics. AIER has published that essay, which is titled Disease Mitigation Measures in the Control of Pandemic Influenza. To summarize some of the points, it is basically the exact opposite of what is happening now.

When we are told that we should listen to science and impose strict lockdown measures, the irony is that science has never said that works.

Henderson writes 

“There are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza. A World Health Organization (WHO) Writing Group, after reviewing the literature and considering contemporary international experience, concluded that “forced isolation and quarantine are ineffective and impractical.””

Lockdowns may seem like a good idea in a sterile and experimental setting, but the idea falls apart when considering how real humans act. Henderson and his colleagues also go on to challenge the various policies that have characterized today’s lockdowns such as school closures and social distancing guidelines. This paper was written in 2006.

Ending the lockdowns is not a wild or radical theory; it is just calling for a return to the way pandemics were managed in the past. To ditch this cruel experiment with society and return to what works.

The Inconsistent Case For Lockdowns

In response to the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), another document was produced by scientists from the opposing camp. Although the scientists certainly meant well and made many insightful statements one couldn’t help but notice that one of their objections to the Declaration was that

“Prolonged isolation of large swathes of the population is practically impossible and highly unethical. Empirical evidence from many countries shows that it is not feasible to restrict uncontrolled outbreaks to particular sections of society. Such an approach also risks further exacerbating the socioeconomic inequities and structural discriminations already laid bare by the pandemic.”

They rightly note that prolonged isolation of large swaths of the population is unethical and evidence from other countries shows that various public health interventions have proven ineffective. I covered this issue in an article months ago where I went over the inconsistency associated with lockdowns across the world. There is nothing wrong with this statement except that it contradicts the case for lockdowns and supports the GBD’s case that society should reopen.

The GBD does not claim that it would be possible to control the virus; it simply advocates for common sense such as ensuring the most vulnerable are protected, whatever that may look like. For example, that could mean being extra careful when taking care of elderly individuals and not forcing Covid patients into nursing homes as was done in a number of states. At one point, nursing home deaths comprised about 40% of total covid fatalities in the United States.

To say that the status quo should be maintained and the GBD should be opposed lack any sort of foundation because there is so much variation across the world in terms of public health interventions. If the GBD is unscientific and dangerous, to what policy framework is that being compared to?

There are also those who say that we in fact can control the virus and that we know exactly what to do. Andy Slavitt, a former Obama administration official, gives a view held by many when he writes,

“We can virtually eliminate the virus any time we decide to. We can be back to a reasonably normal existence: schools, travel, job growth, safer nursing homes and other settings. And we could do it in a matter of weeks. If we want to.”

In the article, Slavitt elaborates on a framework for an incredibly strict lockdown policy to eliminate the virus and then open up entirely. This “throw the kitchen sink” approach has been a popular refrain that has a sort of romantic idealism to it. At the start of the pandemic this might have sounded like a good idea. We even had a phrase for it: Two weeks to flatten the curve. However, in light of everything from lockdowns mild and severe, this does not sound so attractive.

There is another camp of lockdown proponents which would say the exact opposite of what Slavitt says. In direct response to the anti-lockdown position of the GBD, an article in Wired by Matt Reynolds says the following about the United Kingdom on October 7th,

“It’s hard to find people who are advocating for a return to the lockdown we saw in March. When the Great Barrington Declaration authors declare their opposition to lockdowns, they are quite literally arguing with the past.”

Essentially the point being conveyed by this statement is that being anti-lockdown is a flawed position because for the most part society is beginning to open up again. Reynolds agrees with many of the points in the GBD about the damage lockdowns have done to social life, the economy, and health. However, the anti-lockdown stance, particularly that espoused by the GDB is not valid because lockdowns are pretty much over. This is a peculiar approach as it is not clear whether those that hold this view are in favor of or against lockdowns.

Although the world is definitely less draconian than it was back in March, that doesn’t mean that governments won’t reimplement restrictions in the face of spikes in transmission rates. If lockdowns are allegedly so effective, it makes sense to do so. Dr. Fauci for example, stated that lockdowns are not necessary unless things get “really, really bad.”

Of course, what really, really bad means is up for debate and governors across the United States have shown that could mean many things. In California for example, restrictions have been lifted and reissued with alarming frequency.

On October 9th, a time when anti-lockdowners were supposedly arguing with the past, California issued a new guidance limiting the private gatherings to exactly no more than three households, no longer than two hours, and discouraged “singing, chanting, and shouting.”

On October 13th AP news reported that

“In response to the latest numbers, Italy and France are restricting parties and putting limits on restaurants and bars, measures that Slovenia is also considering.

The Czech Republic is closing all schools until Nov. 2, while Latvia is ordering teenagers to switch to distance learning for a week.

Britain unveiled a new three-tiered system for deciding what restrictions to impose based on how severe the outbreak is in certain areas.”

Again the world is supposedly in a reopening stage where people can expect to return to normal and those who support the GBD and pursuing a path to normalcy are mistaken in their disagreement. Yet governments around the world are slowly ramping up the pressure. So either leaders around the world are just ignorant or they still very much believe in the various public health interventions that characterize lockdowns. Interventions that are not based on strong empirical evidence and should supposedly only be used to relieve hospital capacity, not remove the virus from society.

In Search of a Consistent Response to the Great Barrington Declaration

The GBD and skepticism more generally is rooted in a clear goal. End the lockdowns and pursue a path to normalcy with reasonable precautions such as protecting the vulnerable. Of course there will be debate and variation in what that looks like exactly but the destination is clear. However, the same cannot be said about some of those who oppose the GBD and support lockdowns more generally. Indeed, we have heard so many different contradictory arguments that it becomes a little difficult to get a clear position to weigh.

Such inconsistency is more akin to the political circus that is the United States Senate during a Supreme Court confirmation hearing than a scientific debate. However, the sad reality is that the virus has undoubtedly been politicized. Some are constantly railing about how the Trump administration is friendly to the GBD, as if that makes it less scientific. Others are suggesting that mass gatherings don’t spread the virus if it’s for the right political cause. It is very clear the conversation has been hijacked.

We would all be better off if an honest and principled conversation can take place. If lockdowns are found to be undesirable based on all the various considerations from the science to the economics, then we can move on to more productive conversations. There is no need to flip flop, censor, misconstrue, confuse, or otherwise argue as if this were some political debate where winning is more important than the truth.

Until then, proponents of the GBD and lockdown skeptics more generally will be where they have always been since January.

Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.


Capitalism Magazine Editor’s Note: Though the GBD argues correctly that mass nationwide lockdowns are not an effective policy for ending the COVID pandemic, merely allowing “herd immunity” to occur naturally with “focused protection” alone is not the ideal solution as it will still result in deaths. 

Rather than this “balanced approach” of weighing lockdown via benefits, a proper policy would include mass population testing (including contact tracing), with the isolation of infected individuals. This was the policy implemented in Taiwan (which, as of October 24th, 2020, has had only seven deaths from COVID) and South Korea with great success. See How a South Korean Biotech Company Created COVID-19 Testing Kits In Three Weeks and COVID-19 Response: Why Should the U.S. Copy China Rather Than South Korea?

That is, those with infectious diseases should be “locked down” (isolated) so that those who are not infected can go on with their lives. Over time, either through the development of anti-virals and vaccines, deaths from COVID can either be significantly reduced or eliminated. This is the strategy suggested by a policy paper by philosopher Onkar Ghate at The Ayn Rand Institute, A Pro-Freedom Approach to Infectious Disease, in which Ghate argues,

The bottom line is that if we are truly to pursue our own health and happiness, we must have the freedom to think and act for ourselves. If we codify into law both the government’s proper goal and its legitimate powers in execution of that goal during an uncontained outbreak of infectious disease — if the law still focuses government on the task of testing, isolating and tracking carriers as best it can and removes government’s power to order statewide lockdowns — we will have that freedom. There is every reason to think the result will be superior.

Unfortunately, the CDC, FDA, and other government alphabet agencies have restricted the market’s freedom to make personal protection equipment (PPE) and mass population testing available to the general public through various regulations. For one suggestion, of many, of how such mass testing can be made available, see how Cheap One Dollar 15 Minute Result COVID-19 Tests Can End The Need for National Lockdowns Permanently. — Mark Da Cunha

Ethan joined AIER in 2020 as an Editorial Assistant and is a graduate of Trinity College. He received a BA in Political Science alongside a minor in Legal Studies and Formal Organizations. He currently serves as Local Coordinator at Students for Liberty and the Director of the Mark Twain Center for the Study of Human Freedom at Trinity College. Prior to joining AIER, he interned at organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Connecticut State Senate, and the Cause of Action Institute. Ethan is currently based in Washington D.C.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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