The social justice of coronashutdowns

An email exchange with a friend who was trying to persuade me to see reason (i.e., accept that the obviously correct reaction to COVID-19 is shutdown). If you’re short of time, just check out the two sections highlighted in bold face.


Opponents of shutdowns, including me, primarily argue that the shutdowns do not save either lives or life-years. While a shutdown in a non-police state may delay some deaths tagged to COVID-19, the shutdown itself, in our view, will kill far more people via deferred health care (e.g., cardiology), increased obesity, reduced fitness, increased alcoholism and drug use, despair due to loneliness, poverty due to unemployment, intensified poverty in poor countries with which we have reduced our trade and tourism. (a partial calculation).

It is not that we deny the value of “lives saved”. We deny the assertion that the government is actually saving lives. It will be 5-10 years before we can see for sure who was right. And maybe we won’t ever get an accurate total because a lot of the deaths due to shutdown will be in countries that may not be great at keeping statistics (see for example). And some of the deaths won’t happen for another 60 years or so. Children who have lost a year of education will have shorter lives, if previous statistics of life expectancy versus education can be used as a forecast. We don’t have an infinite fountain of money and resources, so the $trillions being spent right now on coronapanic won’t be available to spend on health care and medical research in the decades to come.

Proponents of shutdown wrap themselves in virtue by claiming that they are the only people who care about human life. But I see these proponents as mostly indifferent to human life. They don’t care about any deaths that aren’t tagged to COVID-19.


Mostly people are scared and confused and it is hard to make an accurate model on which to base decisions, because we only have “in circuit” testing of the various components that makes the anticipated effect of changing things hard to gauge.

Complicating things further has been a president with a personality disorder and the unfortunate human susceptibility of many people to become enthralled to those with that disorder, so that the matter of shutdowns is conflated with that man and his followers.

In any case, I get what you are saying. If that was all you were saying I would not object. But mixed in is a streak of righteousness that I think is uncalled for. Your adversaries are mostly not stupid or badly motivated. They mostly just disagree with you.

Let’s take obesity. I think it is highly unlikely the pandemic will directly affect obesity long term. … If you had appropriate clothing and water, you could walk to California without eating, because walking is extraordinarily efficient and fat is extraordinarily energy dense. Exercise and dieting rarely make a significant direct difference in obesity and often have a paradoxical effect, especially dieting. Babies born to women during famine develop obesity as a compensatory response. Obesity is a result of cheap high energy food intersecting with a natural response in some people’s genes to hoard energy when available.


Folks who are advocating for shutdowns are presumably the most scared, though. So they are therefore the least likely to be thinking and acting rationally. If shutdown advocates actually had facts/science on their side, they wouldn’t have to censor Facebook and Twitter, fire anyone who dissented (e.g., this trauma specialist), etc. Astronomers don’t have to work on hunting down astrologers to get them fired for their heresy. The results of astronomy speak for themselves. To my knowledge, Anders Tegnell wasn’t paying attention to Donald Trump. Nor were the scientists at the W.H.O. when they said (through June) that masks for the general population wouldn’t stop the plague from spreading.

It wouldn’t bother me if they disagreed, so long as they didn’t also claim that they had a monopoly on scientific truth and that people who don’t accept these truths are idiots. The raging plagues in fully masked Spain and California are good examples. People who say that science proves that masks for the general population will substantially slow down or stop a plague won’t accept any evidence, including the Spanish/Californian plagues, as sufficient to falsify their hypothesis. This is a fundamental aspect of religion. An earthquake that destroys your church and kills innocent children won’t shake (literally) your belief in a benevolent omnipotent God. …

Finally, there is an equity issue that would prevent me from supporting a shutdown. The shutdowns are ordered by people who live in mansions (governors) and supported by rich white people who live in 4,000+ square foot suburban houses (and who may have vacation houses in addition). I’ve heard a few of your [rich Boston suburbs] neighbors talk about how the school shutdown wasn’t a serious inconvenience and they thought it should continue indefinitely nationwide. These are from people who live in 6,000 square feet, who have two college-educated parents at home, who have multiple private automobiles, etc. They never mention what they imagine school shutdown means to a single parent in a 2BR public housing apartment with three kids. Nor do these folks, generally in their 50s, ever say what benefit the shutdown is delivering to a 30-year-old single mom and her 10-year-old kids.

As a rich white 57-year-old, of course I would like to be protected from coronavirus. But even if I thought that wrecking the lives of a 30-year-old public housing mom and her not-at-risk children (via lockdown) would help me, I would be unwilling to use political and police power to extract this benefit for myself. In my view, the young mom and her kids should be free to continue with their lives and education. They’re not stopping me from hiding in my suburban bunker. Why do I need to force them to give up their First Amendment right to assemble and their right to an education under ?

[your lockdown arguments sound] reasonable, but, again, it is one in which old rich people (watching cash stack up even faster while quarantined in their massive beachfront mansions) say that they want to help Group A (the elderly) and they will make Group B (the essential workers) pay for this by taking away schools for Group B’s kids, freedom for Group B to exercise and socialize, etc.


… it looks like Sweden has now admitted it botched things. and the numbers are rising quickly there now. No ?


The King of Sweden, a guy with 11 palaces and 3 taxpayer-funded Gulfstreams to move among them, has come out as an advocate of shutdown for the working class. So that’s a kind of admission. And the Prime Minister has decided that he will keep his job by appearing to do some stuff (masks on the crowded metro system where people don’t have the flexibility to social distance; reduce the max gathering size for public events (you can still legally have a party at your house for 100 people if you really want to)).

But I think it is more a shift in how people perceive the situation, not a dramatic change in numbers. Below is a chart of Swedish ICU occupancy by COVID-19 patients. Out of a population of 10.4 million they have 300 people nationwide in their ICUs with a COVID-19 tag. (Keep in mind that Sweden has only about 30% of U.S. ICU beds per capita.) They had closer to 550 during the April peak (and Swedish academic modelers predicted that 20,000 Swedes would be in the ICU during the spring 2020 peak).

Is it a “mistake” to have 1 million children in school (without masks) and 300 old/sick people in the ICU with a positive COVID-19 test result? If you believe that humans are in charge of the virus AND that the interests of the old/sick people outweigh the UN-listed universal right of the children to have an education, maybe this is a “mistake”. But the numbers from all around the world suggest that humans are not in charge of the virus, e.g., with raging plagues in masked-and-shut countries or states. In that case, it could look like a “mistake” to deny 1 million children a year of education in hopes of saving a few life-years.

The complete 2020 data won’t be available until mid-January, but right now it seems almost certain that Sweden will have a lower overall death rate than it had in 2010 (the population has grown about 10% during that interval).

Sweden has a COVID-19 death rate that is less than half of the Massachusetts rate. Given recent trends, it seems likely that Sweden will have a cumulative COVID-19 death rate lower than California’s. With lower income children here in Massachusetts and California now having missed nearly a year of education, I personally wouldn’t say that it is the Swedes who are the failures.

So… anyway, I think we can explain different attitudes by different value systems and different personal situations. The Californians whom I know who are pro-shutdown and pro-mask orders do not have children in public school, do not have to leave the house in order to earn money, and simply deny that there is any cost to the loss of freedom of assembly, the loss of gyms, the shutdown of social life (“I can walk outside by myself any time I want”), etc. If we took them seriously, it wouldn’t be cruel or unusual to put convicted criminals into solitary confinement because as long as they have Zoom they wouldn’t have suffered any loss at all by being confined. Shutdown has almost no cost for them so they don’t need a comprehensive scientific theory regarding the benefits of shutdown in order to advocate for it.

The working class people whom I know in Massachusetts (don’t know any in California) feel that their lives have been mostly destroyed. So they demand a logical explanation for how the governor’s 59 orders (so far) will accomplish something more than delaying a few cases by a few weeks. And, of course, the state of the “science” is nowhere near sufficient to provide them with a coherent-sounding explanation. The virus is an aerosol… but a bandana will provide a lot of protection and children who are together in a (white suburban) classroom for 5 hours/day won’t spread the virus to each other so long as they’re all wearing bandanas. Flying and driving lessons are banned after 9:30 pm for COVID-19 safety, but it won’t be unsafe to be in an enclosed car or aircraft prior to 9:30 pm. If this is our best science, it is not good enough to justify the costs of what is being done in the name of science in the eyes of the working class.

We had to agree to disagree, of course, on what is a religious issue. We’re both MITers so, unlike the Facebook righteous, we are able to disagree on a technical issue without destroying our friendship. I asked him to confirm his mailing address for a New Year’s card. He sent me a new address, which I looked up in Zillow. He is living in more than 8,000 square feet in a house with an estimated value of $9.6 million.

Related, an #InThisTogether aerial photo of a house in Lincoln, Maskachusetts:

(by Tony Cammarata with me flying the helicopter)


17 thoughts on “The social justice of coronashutdowns

  1. Thanks for taking time to share your analysis. Hearing different viewpoints is refreshing. The most scary aspect of the shutdown for me has been the absence of reasoned debate along with vociferous elite attempts to demonize dissent.

  2. > The working class people whom I know in Massachusetts (don’t know any in California) feel that their lives have been mostly destroyed. So they demand a logical explanation for how the governor’s 59 orders (so far) will accomplish something more than delaying a few cases by a few weeks. And, of course, the state of the “science” is nowhere near sufficient to provide them with a coherent-sounding explanation.

    And it’s not just Massacahusetts, by any means. The woman in Los Angeles who runs her little bar & grill and was forced to close outdoor dining, which she had paid for out-of-pocket in an attempt to survive, even as a movie production company was able to set up their outdoor tents in the same parking lot, 50 feet away. Debating Trump’s role is a little complex, but even if Trump didn’t exist, we would still have this profound dichotomy and all of the problems. There would be someone else in his place, perhaps not with imprimatur of the President, but it’s ridiculous to say things would be much different. When your livelihood is being destroyed, and everything you’ve worked for is going down the drain, I really think Trump isn’t the major motivating factor. It’s watching your business be shuttered, your lights go out, and your bank account drop into overdraft and then being taken to collections and worse. And he hasn’t told anyone to disobey the Governor’s orders in California, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, or really anywhere else. He has cast doubt on whether the “cure” should be worse than the “disease” – and that resonates with tens of millions of people and infuriates his natural political enemies.

  3. > As a rich white 57-year-old, of course I would like to be protected from coronavirus. But even if I thought that wrecking the lives of a 30-year-old public housing mom and her not-at-risk children (via lockdown) would help me, I would be unwilling to use political and police power to extract this benefit for myself. In my view, the young mom and her kids should be free to continue with their lives and education. They’re not stopping me from hiding in my suburban bunker. Why do I need to force them to give up their First Amendment right to assemble and their right to an education under

    THIS is the central issue. The fact that by March or April of this year, so many people in this country essentially waved the white flag and surrendered their civil rights – for the indefinite future, perhaps years, perhaps forever! in the name of fighting coronavirus, with all the changes in the #Science and the explanations that have gone on since then, is deeply disturbing. I have been astonished and deeply dismayed to see so many outlets for elite analysis and opinion make sweeping statements like: “This will be the price we’re willing to pay for our basic freedom to be with other people” and the like, with the blink of an eye and the wave of their hand to publish that on a website like the MIT Technology Review, as though it was just…nothing!

    The primary reason I’ve read this blog all this time is that you are one of the few educated and intelligent people I’ve seen who have said: “Wait a minute. When you take these freedoms away from people and do this to them, you’d better have a goddamned good reason, not just because you don’t like the President.”

    • @Philg: My biggest worry is that it might not be intelligent enough. We’re going to find out.

  4. This was great, Phil, thanks for sharing. It was refreshing to see 2 highly educated (and opinionated :-)) people debate the different sides of this, and I learned a lot more reading your thinking/reasoning. Happy New Year!

  5. Well, it goes deeper than we thought:

    An owner of tiny tutoring business just argued with me that it’s essential that the schools are closed for safety (here in Seattle). When I pointed out that my eldest goes to the private school which is open, she tried to convince me that it’s different for public vs private schools…

  6. Meanwhile, I wonder if we are going to have second-order effect from the virus: what happens to immunity system of people that self-isolate for extended periods of time? When they come out of their self-inflicted isolation, are they going to be more susceptible to complication from common cold or seasonal flu, etc?

  7. I never suspected people emailed friends with writing that long and polished. Color me shocked. None of those arguments matter the lockdowns will continue until the peasants concede that they are livestock owned by the government and give up autonomy for free junk food and porn.

  8. > on what is a religious issue

    Yes, this is the salient characteristic among believers in the Great Pandemic. There is one aspect that I’ve not seen discussed: the absence of criteria.

    What exactly constitutes a pandemic severe enough to require police-enforced shutdowns, lockdowns, masks, etc? There is no recognized list of measurements and their values, is there? E.g. “infects more than X% of people in less than Y time interval and has a fatality rate over Z”.

    Here is Wikipedia’s definition of Pandemic which says “…virulence and mortality are not mentioned in the current WHO definition, although these factors have previously been included.”

    It cites an interview in Spiegel from 2009 that’s an interesting read. Example: “Don’t you think there’s something noteworthy about the fact that the WHO has changed its definition of pandemic? The old definition was a new virus, which went around quickly, for which you didn’t have immunity, and which created a high morbidity and mortality rate. Now the last two have been dropped, and that’s how swine flu has been categorized as a pandemic.”

    Changing the definition of “pandemic” in that way makes sense, in that it removes the risk of a criterion not being met. In particular, as philg’s correspondent shows, the Swedes’ awkward failure to die is not a problem for the faithful – the (non-)deadliness of Coronaplague is irrelevant!

  9. Again, you are assuming people in Spain etc. are actually (still/ever) obeying the rules. A quick news browse will reveal people in the most draconian shutdown regimes were also the most likely to break the imposed rules.
    We can agree on many things, but lets also agree that common sense precautions are simply not being followed/implemented as much as they should. The reasons are as diverse as the regions in the world.
    In our case they change rules almost on a daily basis. Add an incompetent/corrupt and hated government much like Trump, and you have a recipe for near chaos visible in rapidly rising death counts since summer and nearly no signs of any “flattening the curve” no matter how strict the lockdown measures. It simply does not matter what they ban/impose, because people are sick of them and looks for ways to flaunt the rules.

    • j: the scientists at IMHE seem to think that 95% compliance is the correct number for Spain. See

      Do you have a source to support your assertion that the Spanish have not adhered to “common sense precautions”? (in the old days, the Swedes would have been the “common sense” ones; work from home if you can, don’t shake hands and crowd others, send your children to school; today, however, it is healthy 20-year-olds who hide in bunkers for 1.5 years who are following “common sense”)

      Separately, I don’t see why Trump is to blame rather than the contagious nature of the virus. The hated dictator is not the author of any of the 59 orders that citizens here in Maskachusetts live under (see ). Are we to believe that the righteous citizens of Marin County, California were paying close attention to Donald Trump and that’s why they’ve filled up their ICUs with COVID-19 patients?

    • Trumpian in style, not Trump himself.

      My sources? Friends, family, acquaintances and their social media posts where the common feeling is one of defiance to authority.
      And then there’s stuff like this which is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Plenty of posts on smaller indoor gatherings and tightly packed outdoor events of well into thousands.

      Or how everyone seemed to have opened a business (or used a friend of a second cousin) to buy xmas trees and decorations because nonessetial shops were only open to B2B customers.

      Yes, there are also plenty of “Karens” everywhere, I’ve seen masks worn outdoors, in a field where the nearest other person couldn’t have been closer than a few hundred meters at worse.

      My ultimate point is, wearing that damn mask indoors or in outdoor groups, keeping a distance and ventilating as often is possible are the only countermeasures that should have been enough. But for various reasons they are not.

    • j: Thanks for the link. It is tough to know what to think of these media anecdotes, though admittedly 2,500 people at one rave is a lot! If you follow the New York Times, for example, as I do (righteous paid subscriber here!), you’d think that 99% of Americans Blacks and LGBTQIA+-identifying individuals faced at least weekly hate crimes. If there is a population-wide mask order, I would want to see a population-wide survey to figure out the compliance level. Anecdotally here in Maskachusetts I would say that indoor mask compliance in stores, etc. has been essentially 100% for nearly a year.

      (And, on the third hand, the French ravers who wanted to party mask-free had to hide in a warehouse to do it. That suggests to me that it isn’t trivial to elude the mask/shutdown police!)

  10. Here’s a great supplement to that article in the Times about low-income families, which begins with the story of Grenderline Etheridge and her children in SE Washington, DC. Surf on over to the Washington Post and you can read the story of the impossible task of opening schools in DC this year. The teacher’s unions were absolutely intransigent, the mayor’s office was a Tower of Babel and incompetence, and nobody went to school. But all the administrators got paid. Nobody has been fired.

    • Alex: The only thing tougher than administering a school that is open is administering a school that is closed. So the paychecks should not only keep flowing, but also should be increased in size!

  11. Our numbers, here in York Region, Ontario, are lower than US as a whole or Maskattusets’. The reason, people claim, is because we follow rules and Americans dont. But I believe its because we have low density, urban settings. We have wide streets, large, well spaced houses, and no one uses the much flaunted public transit. We walk in the woods for exercise, or snow shoe in the parks that weave through our neighbourhoods. You cant catch a virus from people you are not close enough to see.
    I am frustrated by the holier than though preachers of the lockdown religion

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