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Covid Lockdowns Will Not Boost Innovation

Here’s a letter to Al Arabiya English:


I respectfully dissent from my former colleague Omar Al-Ubaydli’s case that Covid-19 lockdowns will perhaps boost innovation (“How coronavirus lockdowns can boost innovation,” Dec. 23).

Omar grounds his conclusion on a new paper whose authors examined the impact of U.S. city lockdowns during the 1918 flu epidemic. Some U.S. cities back then imposed more stringent restrictions than did other cities. The paper’s authors find, as Omar writes, “that innovation rates in the long-lockdown cities were approximately equal to those in the short-lockdown cities during the pandemic…. Moreover, in the long-run, the long-lockdown cities fared considerably better than the short-lockdown cities; patent applications increased by 12 percent following the pandemic’s conclusion.”

Following the paper’s authors, Omar speculates that lives saved by the strictest 1918 lockdowns not only ensured a greater supply of future inventors, but also preserved “intangible and organizational assets, such as the knowledge embedded in successful companies.”

Without questioning this paper’s conclusion about the 1918 pandemic, that conclusion contains no lesson for today. Unlike the far-more-lethal Spanish flu, Covid reserves its damage overwhelmingly for the elderly. Nearly a third (32 percent) of Covid deaths in the U.S. are of people 85 years old or older, while a whopping 80 percent of Covid deaths in the U.S. are of people 65 years or older.

Covid, in short, almost exclusively kills retirees, and especially ones who are very old and frail. Therefore, any lives that are saved by Covid lockdowns are not those of individuals who will be filing applications for patents.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030