The false comparison: Lockdown vs. sickness. “Wear the mask; do the task.”

The current argument is about seemingly incompatible arguments: Should we “lockdown” society to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 while destroying the economy, or should we “open up” to reduce economic hardship while encouraging the spread of disease and death?

Images of Empty Cities Shouldn't Define This Pandemic
Eerily empty “COVID” streets are not necessary.

The belief seems to be that we can’t do both, that is, we can’t prevent the spread of COVID-19 and simultaneously reduce economic hardship.

We can’t have our cake and eat it, too.

I claim this belief not only is wrong, but it actually causes both the disease and economic hardship.

Currently, it seems we can’t have our cake, and we can’t eat it, either.

The burden of proof lies with economic lockdown proponents
By Heather MacDonald, the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and contributing editor at City Journal — 05/07/20

Who has the burden of proof regarding the economic lockdowns: Those who argue for continuing them or those who want to lift them?

In litigation, allocation of the burden of proof often determines the outcome of a case.

If the advocates of continued lockdown had that burden, they would have to answer the following questions, now kept off stage:

—What have the lockdowns accomplished so far and what will they accomplish in the future?
—What are the public health consequences of a global depression?
—Do the benefits of keeping people from working outweigh the costs in lost and stunted lives?
—How will herd immunity be achieved under lockdown conditions?

Sweden has been as successful in controlling the virus as most other nations, though its businesses remain open; its death rate is lower than those of the most hard-hit U.S. states that locked down relatively early.

Laos and Cambodia practiced no social distancing but have had no outbreaks. An analysis published in The Wall Street Journal found no statistically significant connection between the rapidity with which a state in the U.S. shut down its economy and its subsequent death rates.

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced the “shocking” news that 84 percent of all hospital admissions were either people sheltering at home or nursing home residents.

He shouldn’t have been surprised. The risk of coronavirus infection occurs overwhelmingly indoors.

Researchers in China identified only one outdoor outbreak of infection among over a thousand cases studied. Most transmissions occurred at home, rendering the close-down-all-businesses-and-shelter-in-place rule contraindicated.

Reading the above argument might tempt one to believe that lockdowns not only are useless, but actually harmful, not only to the economy, but also harmful to human health — and that lockdowns actually cause COVID-19 to proliferate.

But then there’s this:

Brazil is letting the coronavirus run wild with little intervention, and the results are strikingly bad
Business Insider, Kelly McLaughlin, May 1, 2020 

Brazil is facing an extreme surge in COVID-19 cases after the government left the virus to spread virtually uncontrolled for weeks, all while the country’s president mocked stay-at-home policies and pushed against directives from the World Health Organization.

As of Friday evening, Brazil, which has a population of 209 million, had 91,589 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 6,329 deaths from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins data. That makes the country’s per-capita death rate 3.02 deaths per 100,000 people.

Experts told The Associated Press that the numbers of cases and deaths could be much higher because Brazil does not yet have widespread testing.

And this:

Sweden’s coronavirus results don’t make the case for reopening the American economy
By James Pethokoukis, Editor, AEIdeas; DeWitt Wallace Fellow, April 7, 2020

Skeptics of America’s (mostly) national lockdown say Sweden’s lighter-touch approach is far superior. 

Unlike many other advanced economies, the Swedish government has not imposed a strict quarantine on its population.

As I write this, Sweden has reported 7,693 total cases and 591 deaths. Its fatality rate per capita is higher than in the United States or any other Scandinavian country.

And while Sweden’s total cases per million residents (762) are fewer than Nordic neighbors Norway (1089) and Denmark (875), they are more than Finland (417). Sweden has also conducted fewer tests per million than those other nations.

Switzerland, which is on a tight lockdown and so far has more than three times as many cases per million and nearly twice as many deaths (as Sweden).

(But),  Switzerland’s population density is pretty much the same as neighbor Italy’s, also a high outbreak country, and 10 times as high as Sweden’s.

Moreover, Sweden has one of the highest shares of one-person households in the world (24 percent), far higher than Norway (19 percent), Denmark (17 percent), Finland (15 percent), and Switzerland (14 percent). Perhaps this helps prevent the virus from spreading. 

The economic impact of the Swedish strategy is also unclear. The government certainly thinks it’s going to be pretty bad.

According to the National Institute of Economic Research, its baseline scenario has Swedish real GDP growth declining by 3.4 percent this year, worse than its 2.9 percent forecast for the United States.

I always caution against mindlessly extrapolating what works in Scandinavia to also be successful in the US. 

So both Sweden’s lack of lockdown and America’s (mostly) lockdown fail to prevent death and disease and fail to protect their economies. By any reasonable measure, neither system can be considered a success.

If it’s not either/or with regard to lockdown, what is it?

Consider this article:

Schools Risk Drowning in Red Ink
By Max Eden, Manhattan Institute, May 08, 2020

Schools are funded by a combination of local, state, and federal dollars.

In an effort to decrease financial inequities across school districts of disparate means, state policymakers in the last decade substantially increased the share of school funding that comes from state income and sales taxes.

With unemployment clams at 22 million and rising, retail sales currently illegal, and a major recession on the horizon, school districts are going to take a shellacking.

Schools will have to get creative and aggressive in order to balance their books. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos could look to perhaps the best speech given by her Obama-era predecessor, Arne Duncan.

He warned that the cushion of the stimulus act would soon be running out, and that states and districts were about to face a “funding cliff.”

Duncan urged school leaders to resist the temptation to lay off teachers and eliminate arts programs. Rather, he insisted that they look to reduce administrative costs.

He noted that school districts paid about $8 billion each year in bonuses for teachers with masters’ degrees, despite little evidence that they provide any benefit to students. 

Unfortunately, despite his own advice against “reform by addition,” Duncan’s tenure was defined by his “Race to the Top” initiative, which foisted the Common Core and test-based teacher evaluation on the states.

From 1992 to 2009, teaching staff increased by 32 percent, whereas administrative staff increased by 46 percent.

During the great recession, teachers got the short end of the stick, with 3.7 percent losing their jobs compared to 2.2 percent of administrative staff.

Aside from favoring teachers over administrators, there is plenty of other school spending that is either unproductive or even counter-productive.

[“Restorative justice,” “professional development,” and “pre-k” programs are given as examples.]

Education in America is largely funded by the monetarily non-sovereign state and local governments, which do not have the federal government’s unlimited ability to create dollars and to fund everything.

Unquestionably, lockdowns injure the economy and today’s young generation, educationally, emotionally, and financially.

But do we want our children to sicken and die?

Finally, we have this article, which at first glance may not seem to be related to the “lockdown/no lockdown” argument, but in reality is central to it.

New Bill Would Give Americans $2,000 Per Month Until Coronavirus Pandemic Is Over
HuffPost Igor Bobic, May 8, 2020
A new bill seeks to dramatically increase financial relief for struggling American families amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic by extending the government’s stimulus checks months after the crisis is over.

The Monthly Economic Crisis Support Act, introduced Friday by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), would provide a monthly $2,000 check to every person with an income below $120,000 throughout the public health crisis and for three months after it officially ends.

In late March, the Senate passed a $2 trillion package called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, but the trio of progressive senators believes it’s insufficient.

“The CARES Act gave Americans an important one-time payment, but it’s clear that wasn’t nearly enough to meet the needs of this historic crisis,” Harris said in a statement.

“Bills will continue to come in every single month during the pandemic and so should help from the government.”

The plan stands a poor chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate, which has soured on spending.

But with more than 30 million people unemployed over the last seven weeks and no end to the pandemic in sight, Democrats are aiming to up the pressure on congressional leaders as they begin discussions over another fiscal relief package that is expected sometime this month.


Much money, time, and effort is being expended to develop a cure and a human preventative (vaccination) for COVID-19.

Accomplishing either is felt to be many months off, and either or both may prove to be impossible.

And Congress is losing its desire to spend at just the moment when the economy needs more money, and a great deal of it.

Face masks: What health experts say - CNN
Wear the mask; do the task.

Having neither the cure nor human preventative, the “lockdown” vs. “no lockdown” argument continues to rage.

With the President’s sole concern being his re-election, he is betting that the public is more concerned about money than lives, so he repeatedly urges the states to do what he tweets (in all caps), “LIBERATE.”

This argument really revolves around just two questions:

  1. How best to prevent disease and death?
  2. How best to preserve the economy and our way of life?

In a previous post, “The surprisingly simple way to open America in 14 days and avoid a depression,” we show that national mask usage would create a quasi “herd immunity,” in which neither a cure nor a vaccine is the primary goal.

Rather, the primary goal is to prevent the transmission of the disease. 

This goal, when accomplished, ultimately destroys the disease, with minimal negative economic effects.

When people wear masks, virus transmission among them is inhibited. And the masks don’t necessarily need to be of the N-95 type. Even simple cloth masks will do, if everyone wears them.

National mask usage is:

–Affordable (Our Monetarily Sovereign federal government can afford anything),
–Physically possible (easily and quickly produced with easily available materials), and
Psychologically possible (a combination of legal requirements, disease fear, and social non-conformance stigmatizing would have a powerful motivational effect.)

Businesses, where mask usage is possible, should be allowed to open. There would be no reason to destroy them and their employees by forcing them to close.

“Wear the mask; do the task.”

Additionally, for businesses where mask usage is not appropriate, i.e. restaurants, and entertainment activities where masks impede performance (sports, swimming, singing, some musical instruments, plays, and movies, etc.)  the government should be prepared to focus full financial support to the business owners and the employees.

And, of course, there are some people who, for health reasons, cannot wear masks. They should be allowed special privileges, just as the physically impaired have parking privileges.

Rather than illogically dragging its feet about supporting everyone (which the federal government actually could do, but resists), the government should produce, mandate, and distribute the masks, while financially supporting those who cannot use them.

Thus, with universal mask rules, the U.S. government can accomplish everything it wishes — disease prevention and economic growth — even without ever finding a cure or a vaccine, and without closing the vast majority of American enterprises.

And of course, implementing the Ten Steps to Prosperity would assure economic growth and a more equitable distribution of wealth, income and power.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
Monetary Sovereignty
Twitter: @rodgermitchell
Search #monetarysovereignty Facebook: Rodger Malcolm Mitchell



The most important problems in economics involve:

  1. Monetary Sovereignty describes money creation and destruction.
  2. Gap Psychology describes the common desire to distance oneself from those “below” in any socio-economic ranking, and to come nearer those “above.” The socio-economic distance is referred to as “The Gap.”

Wide Gaps negatively affect poverty, health and longevity, education, housing, law and crime, war, leadership, ownership, bigotry, supply and demand, taxation, GDP, international relations, scientific advancement, the environment, human motivation and well-being, and virtually every other issue in economics.

Implementation of Monetary Sovereignty and The Ten Steps To Prosperity can grow the economy and narrow the Gaps:

Ten Steps To Prosperity:

1. Eliminate FICA

2. Federally funded Medicare — parts A, B & D, plus long-term care — for everyone

3. Provide a monthly economic bonus to every man, woman and child in America (similar to social security for all)

4. Free education (including post-grad) for everyone

5. Salary for attending school

6. Eliminate federal taxes on business

7. Increase the standard income tax deduction, annually. 

8. Tax the very rich (the “.1%”) more, with higher progressive tax rates on all forms of income.

9. Federal ownership of all banks

10. Increase federal spending on the myriad initiatives that benefit America’s 99.9% 

The Ten Steps will grow the economy and narrow the income/wealth/power Gap between the rich and the rest.


9 thoughts on “The false comparison: Lockdown vs. sickness. “Wear the mask; do the task.”

  1. I largely agree with overall, Rodger. Though I would add that even restaurants and even many bars can be safely reopened now (despite the impracticality of eating and drinking while wearing masks) under such a plan provided they 1) require all staff to wear masks, 2) have occupancy restrictions and some degree of social distancing, at least at first, and 3) have strict hygiene and sanitation requirements (like any restaurant worth its salt should already have). Also, have table service only, no eating or drinking at the bar or while standing up, at least for the first few weeks after reopening. Problem solved.

    In fact, as long as mask use is near-universal at a population level, businesses and activities for which masks are impractical will also benefit since the greatly reduced spread of disease at the population level will greatly reduce risk for everyone across the board. Even relatively higher risk businesses would quickly become relatively low risk, so even they can reopen too. And in cases where masks are impractical, taking the proper precautions otherwise in terms of social distancing and occupancy would go a long way to making things safer.

    That said, large (50+ people) and especially very large gatherings (500+ people) not necessary for business purposes should still be postponed for quite a while.

    As for Sweden, they have become quite the punching bag lately from lockdown enthusiasts. Different countries count deaths differently, and while many countries undercount have yet to count COVID deaths in nursing homes (where at least half of the deaths sadly seem to be occurring, and clearly don’t benefit from a general population lockdown), Sweden has been counting them fairly well. The best way to measure death rates is the “excess” death rate from all causes compared to the same time in previous years, as that is a measure that no one seriously disputes. And such a comparison puts Sweden in the middle of the pack as an average European country, worse than their Nordic neighbors, Germany, and Austria, while better than the locked-down UK, France, Spain and Italy, and not very different from locked-down Switzerland. Sweden also outperforms the USA, or at least the seven worst states (all at least partial lockdown states) that account for the overwhelming lion’s share of American deaths (the remaining 33 states generally have quite low population density). Note also that the total excess death measure also captures any “collateral damage” deaths that occur as a result of the lockdowns as well–and the results are hardly a ringing endorsement for lockdowns, to say the least.

    But yes, it is not all wine and roses in Sweden either. While their current strategy seems to be calibrated in the much-coveted Goldilocks zone of “just right” as of early April (except of course for the fact that most Swedes don’t wear masks), in March they were even more lax and now they are paying the price for their previous laxness, especially for nursing homes. Had they been just a little bit stricter a little bit sooner, many many lives could have been saved. Fortunately, they now seem to be on the backside of the peak of the epidemic curve (which they did in fact “flatten” at least as much as the typical lockdown country did) are quickly approaching “herd immunity” if they are not already there. If there is a second wave in the near future, Sweden seems to be the least likely country to get it. And come to think of it, the same could be said about my neck of the woods in the greater NYC area as well.

    Ultimately, this debate will become academic very soon, as every lockdown in the world is now far past the point of diminishing returns.


    1. I forgot to also mention that while Sweden’s economy is suffering now, it looks like they will just get a really bad recession rather than a full-blown depression like so many other countries. Even so, their recession is largely due to their economy’s dependence on exports to other, locked-down countries (that’s a real downside of having a trade surplus), lack of tourism, for obvious reasons (despite open borders), and most Swedes voluntarily choosing not patronize bars and restaurants despite still being open. If I were a restauranteur or a publican (which I am not), I still would much rather lose 2/3 or my customers than lose all of them.

      Other non-lockdown countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Mexico, Japan (with a very belated “soft” lockdown) Iceland (the latter somewhat stricter than Sweden) and even the now infamously feckless Belarus of all places are still able to boast lower death rates than not only Sweden, but nearly all lockdown countries and the USA. Russia did a lockdown and now they are still getting slammed by the virus now, far worse than their former Soviet neighbor Belarus. Canada is strict but less strict than most of the USA, and still has lower death rates per capita. And Iceland is doing about as good as the crown jewel of lockdowns, New Zealand. As for Brazil, with regional and local lockdowns but a feckless Trumpian national leader, if it weren’t for their much warmer weather combined with unusually good luck, they would most likely now be faring the very worst of any country in the world, and far worse than the USA.

      In the long run, virtually all countries will most likely end up in the same place regardless.

      One interesting correlation I could find is that, lockdown or no lockdown, countries with a female president or prime minister seem to fare better than countries with a male president or prime minister on average. Same with governors of US states, at least once Michigan is removed from the equation. Perhaps there is something to what Buckminster Fuller calls the “feminine paradigm of leadership” after all.


  2. Yes, the requirement of employment to receive money won’t work with increasing automation and corporate expatriation. Money must not be tied to employment. It must be untied and, like water, allowed to settle into its own level.
    It could be that Covid19 will break the back of the Malthusian scarcity model of all economic systems across the spectrum. This could be MS’s moment to shine, though at great expense in lives.


  3. I completely agree re the wearing of masks. Not only would universal mask usage stop the spread of symptomatic infection – i.e. by those already coughing & sneezing – it would also stop the spread of pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic infection. Some people believe up to 50% of all infections could be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic – i.e. no one knows who’s a spreader and who isn’t.

    Covid-19 is a stealth virus. That’s why it has spread so far, so fast. Yet because testing has been so minimal, projections and modelling have been incapable of accurately forecasting the virus’ impact. Garbage in, garbage out.

    It’s next to impossible to protect yourself against something you cannot see. If everyone has to wear masks to stop them from infecting /others/, then it doesn’t matter whether you can see Covid-19 or not. It doesn’t matter whether you know how many asymptomatic spreaders there are. The masks stop them all.


  4. Excellent article:

    Coronavirus Magical Thinking, US Style: Contact Tracing Versus Masks
    Posted on May 11, 2020 by Yves Smith
    Since the US is a federal system with an Administration that refused to take coronavirus seriously early enough, and now seems determined to validate its original decision by doubling down on it, it is a bit simplistic to speak of a “coronavirus response,” since cities and states have been taking the lead and they’ve gone down different paths.

    Nevertheless, due to the decision by many governments, particularly in the South, to start relaxing restrictions, I’m coming across way too many rationalizations. And one of them is that officials can make things safe enough with approaches like contact tracing. Mind you, as you will see, the point is that contact tracing, or any information gathering, practiced on an insufficient scale and without programs to take disease containment steps using that data, is at best misguided, and at worst, intended to build false confidence.


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