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Living at a Distance: How Lockdowns Help Fighting the Pandemic

Photo: Valeria Zolotaryova, VoxUkraine
20 December 2020
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The virus can only spread when people are close to each other and are communicating. To keep distance means to break the chain of infection. Lockdown is the extreme manifestation of one of the three main ways to fight the virus, which has been informally called “The 3 Ws: Wash hands, Wear mask, Watch distance” — that is, wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance. Lockdown provides the third point — artificially limits the activity of people in order to increase the distance between them.

At the individual level, it is not always easy for people to limit communication with others. Many adults need to go to work, children — to school or kindergarten, everyone needs to communicate with family and friends. Therefore, governments pursue policies aimed at increasing the distance between people and reducing the intensity of communication. This gave rise to the new word in the Ukrainian language — lockdown, borrowed from the English Lockdown.

Such measures help limiting the spread of the virus. However, at the same time they restrict people’s freedoms and have a high price for society. For example, children study and socialize worse, which negatively affects their further development; adults earn less, which causes losses to the economy and the state budget; all are communicating less and are limited in meeting a number of social needs, which negatively affects the psychological health of the population.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries around the world have introduced certain measures of social distancing. The data and research results available today allow us to draw conclusions about their effectiveness. In some countries, lockdown policies have been successful, in others — no. The most successful countries have managed to avoid the difficult choice between high mortality due to the rapid spread of the virus and high socio-economic losses due to prolonged severe lockdown.

Among the most successful countries are island nations, such as New Zealand, which, with the help of lockdown, managed to curb the spread of the disease in the very beginning, and then to remove restrictions on the movement of people within the country. Other island nations, such as Iceland and Australia, have also been able to avoid outbreaks. However, there are numerous examples of successful policies among non-island countries, including countries with high population densities: Finland, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Norway.

Currently, a number of countries are reintroducing enhanced quarantine measures. In particular, European countries — Italy, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands. Although approaches to the introduction of lockdown are changing to more mixed and localized ones, countries restrict the movement of people, completely or partially close and transfer schools to online, limit business hours, introduce a common face mask regime.

Why are lockdowns more effective in some countries than in others? The devil, as always, is in the detail.

Lessons from successful countries: tracking and isolation

Studies cite the following success factors of Vietnam, one of the most successful countries in the fight against the pandemic:

  • Investments in health infrastructure (e.g. emergency centers and monitoring systems). Vietnam has learned the lessons of SARS and bird flu outbreaks and has invested in increasing of the capacity of the medical system to fight viral and infectious diseases.
  • Early actions, such as closing the borders, mass testing and a severe lockdown at the very beginning of the pandemic, helped curb the spread of the virus before it got out of control.
  • Careful tracking of contacts has helped to implement a localization policy — to move from containment of the virus through a general lockdown to the rapid detection and limitation of local outbreaks.
  • Isolation of potentially infected persons, not just those with symptoms. This helped curb the spread of the virus from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic infected individuals.
  • Clearly communicated policy.
  • A society-wide approach has allowed a wide range of stakeholders to be involved in the decision-making process and to ensure the active participation of citizens in relevant activities.

Another example is South Korea. In addition to the prepared health care system and other measures implemented in Vietnam, it used technological solutions to successfully combat the spread of the virus. In particular, in mass testing of the population and in tracking of contact persons via smartphones. Success factors were the country’s technological development and the willingness of government agencies to apply innovations. And also the fact that legally and culturally South Korea has less strict rules on the dissemination of personal data than most of other developed countries.

The nature and timeliness of restrictions

The examples of other countries, in particular New Zealand, have shown the importance of introduction of administrative restrictions early. Countries that have imposed restrictions even before the considerable spread of the virus are generally more successful in further controlling of the disease. However, the example of Ukraine shows that even premature and severe lockdowns may not hold new waves of disease if a system of testing, isolation of contacts and treatment has not been sufficiently prepared during that time. Moreover, public distrust of government actions and inactions during previous quarantine restrictions makes new lockdowns much less effective.

The authors of the Oxford study argue that although social distancing measures are necessary to stop the spread of the virus, when and how they are introduced is more important than the degree of their severity. Early preparation and volume of health system resources were sufficient for some countries to avoid draconian measures. For example, “Germany, with better testing capacity and contacts tracking and with more intensive care resources than its neighbors, has been able to afford to keep the economy a little more open. Greece, which was acting quickly and confidently, seems to have managed to avoid the worst-case scenario so far.”

Also, important is the issue of a set of restrictions that operate simultaneously and can enhance the effect of social distancing measures. For example, the common face mask regime, which can significantly slow down the spread of the virus, the system of testing and detection of contact persons, increased hygiene measures in public places, and so on.

After all, the spread of the virus and its impact on the population depend on a number of factors that governments can hardly influence (at least in the short term perspective), such as health and age structure of the population, population mobility, people’s propensity to adhere to social distancing rules, capacity of medical systems, etc. Thus, a number of studies show that in countries with a high level of social capital (better ability of people to form social ties with others, trust others), people are more likely to adhere to even those restrictions that are of a recommendatory nature. This, in turn, affects the effectiveness of government restrictions in different countries.

In Ukraine, the government is currently planning to impose a temporary severe lockdown in January 2021. Researchers at the Kyiv School of Economics advise extending restrictions that acted as a “weekend quarantine” until November 30 to all days, to control the spread of coronavirus. That is, to introduce a general lockdown together with a package of economic support for business and citizens, followed by the transition to the model of adaptive quarantine, which has been in force in Ukraine since May. And the decision about quarantine’s end should be made for each region separately according to the incidence rates and not earlier than one month after the introduction of general quarantine.

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