It’s hard to get good data, yes, particularly in a politically charged environment. But, I would have liked to have seen some evidence that for a given mitigation, our leaders tried to get a best estimate (even if it is not a great estimate) that it will prevent X COVID deaths, at a cost of Y (dollars, QALYs, whatever), and had done some reasoning why utility(X) > cost(Y). We might disagree on the values of X and Y, and how to compare them, but at least we would have a starting point for discussion. Instead, we got either “Don’t take away muh freedom!” or “We must stop anyone from dying of COVID at all costs!”. And a lot of people died, and we inflicted tremendous damage on ourselves, while doing some things that were maybe beneficial, and a lot of things that were clearly stupid, and we’re not in a position to do better next time.
I think the problem here is also forced choices, which were in themselves loaded on purpose. If I tell you the two choices are “let COVID spread unimpeded” or “lock down without any support mechanism so that the economy crashes so hard it kills more people than COVID would” (honestly I don’t think we actually fared that bad in western countries though, pre-vaccine COVID really would have killed a fuckton of people if it got in full swing), then I’m already loading the choice. Many politicians did this because essentially they were so pissy about having to do something that ran counter to their ideological inclinations that they took a particular petty pleasure in doing it as badly as they could, just to drive home that it was bad. This is standard “we believe the State is bad, that is why we will get in charge of the State and then manage it like utter fuckwits to demonstrate that the State is bad” right wing libertarian-ish behaviour. Boris Johnson and the British Tories in particular are regularly culpable of this, and were so during the pandemic as well.
A third, saner option would have been “close schools, make it legally mandated for every employer who can allow work from home to make their people work from home, implement these and those security measures for those who otherwise can’t, close businesses like restaurants and cinemas temporarily, then tax (still temporarily!) the increased earnings of those citizens and companies who are less affected by these measures to pay for supporting those businesses and people that are more affected so that the former don’t go bankrupt, and the latter don’t starve”. You know, an actual coordinated action that aims at both minimizing and spreading fairly the (inevitable) suffering that comes with being in a pandemic. Do that on and off while developing testing and tracing capacity as well as all sorts of mitigation measures, and until a vaccine is ready. Then try to phase out to a less emergency mode, more sustained regime that however still manages infection rates and their human and economic costs seriously.
We… really didn’t get that. But the original sin was IMO mainly in the way pandemic plans were already laden with ideology from the get go. The whole “let it rip” thing the UK tried before desperately backtracking? That WAS our official pandemic plan. Designed for flu rather than a coronavirus with twice the R0, admittedly, but still. The best idea they could come up with was “do nothing, but pretend it’s on purpose to look more clever”, essentially, because everything else felt inadmissible as it impinged on this or that interest or assumption that couldn’t possibly be broken. As it turns out, the one thing that plan underestimated, for all its pretences of being a masterpiece of grounded realpolitik, was the pressure from people not wanting to get sick or die. Who could have guessed. As such, the backlash and following measures like lockdowns were implemented in a rush and thus very poorly and without real plans or coordination. Might have helped to see that coming first.