Study Indicates Lockdowns Have Increased Deaths of Despair
By Ethan Yang
It should be common knowledge by now that younger people are significantly less likely to die of Covid-19 than the elderly. However, a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research notes some significant increases in excess deaths among working-age individuals. Excess deaths are the number of deaths exceeding the expected number in a given year. If there are excess deaths that means something unusual has happened, such as a pandemic or a drastic change to social life: such as lockdowns. The study notes,
From March onward, excess deaths are approximately 250,000 of which about 17,000 appear to be a COVID undercount and 30,000 non-COVID. Deaths of despair (drug overdose, suicide, alcohol) in 2017 and 2018 are good predictors of the demographic groups with NCEDs in 2020. The NCEDs are disproportionately experienced by men aged 15-55, including men aged 15-25. Local data on opioid overdoses further support the hypothesis that the pandemic and recession were associated with a 10 to 60 percent increase in deaths of despair above already high pre-pandemic levels.
Of course, the elephant in the room is that over 250,000 excess deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 with 30,000 attributed to non-Covid causes. The debate about whether recorded Covid deaths should be lower or higher, and whether lockdowns have done anything to help with that number will be saved for another day. The purpose of this article is to focus on the fact that younger people have been dying at higher rates than usual and it is likely that lockdowns are one of the main drivers of that trend.
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The author of the study, Casey Mulligan, writes the following about how some people felt towards the idea that lockdowns would lead to more deaths of despair such as suicides and drug overdoses:
Some have worried that “the cure is worse than the disease.” Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton mocked this as a “pet theory about the fatal dangers of quarantine.” They concluded in the summer of 2020 that “a wave of deaths of despair is highly unlikely.
However, by examining CDC data Mulligan points out that there have been around 30,000 excess deaths that are completely unrelated to Covid-19. Elderly individuals have seen a decrease in non-Covid-related excess deaths and bear the large share of Covid deaths. This would make sense because Covid-19 is more deadly to elderly people, so if excess deaths are up then Covid-19 would be the explanatory variable. This also creates a question about comorbidities and relabeling the cause of death, but again a conversation for another day.
The interesting point is that excess deaths for working-age people has also been increasing but Covid-19 is not the only reason. If Covid isn’t killing younger people then the only other major explanation would be deaths of despair. Deaths caused by suicides and drug abuse due to the life-crushing effects of lockdowns. When you force the entire country into social isolation and upend people’s lives, people tend to get emotionally distraught. That’s why younger people are dying at higher rates than usual. To be fair the author writes,
Presumably social isolation is part of the mechanism that turns a pandemic into a wave of deaths of despair. However, the results in this paper do not say how much, if any, comes from government stay-at-home orders versus various actions individual households and private businesses have taken to encourage social distancing.
Provided above are two graphs featured in the study. Figure 1 demonstrates the death statistics for elderly individuals on a 40-week timeline for 2020. As noted before, Covid-19 has been the main reported cause of excess deaths among the elderly in 2020. Figure 3 shows the 40-week timeline for excess deaths among men aged 15-54, which have seen a disproportionate share of deaths of despair compared to women. As demonstrated by the blue line, Non-Covid excess deaths exceeded Covid deaths. These would more than likely be attributed to deaths of despair as social isolation and economic devastation take their toll on the able-bodied.
A total of about 14,000 NCEDs (Non Covid Excess Deaths) are shown in Figure 3 together with 12,000 COVID deaths. The time patterns are similar for sub-age groups, except that the youngest groups have few COVID deaths. 2,300 of the 14,000 NCEDs are for ages 15-24, and 2,000 for ages 25-34… official COVID deaths are only 240 and 1,100, respectively.
In particular, there were 2,300 excess deaths amongst those aged 15-24 that were due to Non-Covid related causes, again likely deaths of despair caused by social isolation. However, only 240 excess deaths amongst those 15-24 could be in any way related to Covid-19. Again this is discounting the possibility of miscategorization and comorbidities. This is why many people are calling for a strategy of allowing the young and healthy to live their lives while taking steps to protect the vulnerable.
To further the study’s point about deaths of despair the author was able to provide opioid overdose statistics from San Diego, California, and Cook County, Illinois.
Figure 5 depicts the data from Cook County, Illinois and San Diego, California. It clearly shows that recorded opioid deaths are noticeably higher in 2020 than in previous years and the increase is more sudden. It also follows the timeline of lockdowns. Furthermore, the CDC reported that,
Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.
The author notes that synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which are far more potent than non-synthetic opioids, are driving this increase in deaths. She speculates that fentanyl has become more prevalent because lockdowns have made it more difficult to acquire the milder forms of opioids.
There is no denying that 2020 has seen a wave of excess deaths. Part of that is undeniably due to Covid-19 which is dangerous to the elderly and relatively mild for younger populations. However, the increase in excess deaths amongst working-age individuals by the tens of thousands shows that there is another killer out there. Deaths of despair due in large part to social isolation. Regardless of whether they think lockdowns work, policymakers must be cognizant of the fact shutting down society also leads to excess deaths. Whether it’s from the government policies themselves or the willful compliance of society enforcing the soft despotism of popular hysteria, social isolation is taking its toll on the lives of many.