We are flooded with data and stories on infections, hospitalizations, and deaths attributed to COVID-19. At nearly 650,000 U.S. deaths as of the beginning of September 2021, those numbers are very large, and the immediate day-to-day impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has tended to dominate the news. But there is also a great deal of underreported collateral damage, costing many lives while shattering hopes and dreams, especially among the working poor.
This collateral damage—unintended consequences—of our personal and policy responses to the virus is immense. Excess deaths from causes other than COVID-19 have been sharply higher than normal during the pandemic. These consequences can be extreme, such as violence and deaths of despair, but many other all-too-human costs—divorces, alcoholism, drug abuse, and derailed careers—have yet to be measured. It will be some time before all the costs can be tallied, but we can start to see and quantify many of them, and also highlight others that need to be investigated.
Understanding the full scope of the damage will help close gaps between conventional wisdom and reality. Ideally, it should also inform our future personal and policy responses to pandemics and other emergencies. We owe it to ourselves to dispassionately study the policy choices that were made so that we can respond faster and better in the future. It will be invaluable if we can also recognize that scientific method does not mean seeking out evidence that supports one’s personal opinion, but involves actively seeking to test our hypotheses, and openly exploring alternative perspectives.