May 4, 2020 - World

Looking back on locking down

A long-awaited passeggiata, in Rome. Photo: Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis via Getty Images

The world now appears to be moving beyond peak lockdown, with at least 12 countries loosening restrictions today.

Why it matters: While regions and countries will likely be forced to reimpose lockdowns as the pandemic develops, we may not again see half of humanity constrained at the same time.

  • Italy, which imposed the first national lockdown eight weeks ago, is now allowing some social interaction. India also began to tentatively loosen the largest lockdown in history.

Flashback: As Europe and much of the world was beginning to clamp down, a vocal minority of experts and politicians made three broad arguments against locking down.

1. The public would not comply for long enough to make lockdowns effective.

  • In March, the scientists who advised the British government against imposing a lockdown predicted that people would get “fed up” and the “effectiveness would wane” unless the harshest restrictions were limited to a relatively short period near the peak of the outbreak.
  • Where things stand: Even in liberal democracies, populations clearly have made major, sustained behavioral changes that have in turn slowed the spread of the virus. In addition, lockdowns have overwhelming approval virtually everywhere they’ve been imposed.
  • However, a corollary claim made by the chief scientific advisers in the U.K. and Sweden — that a pattern of loosening and then tightening lockdowns will erode public trust over time — has not yet been tested.
  • That leads us to argument No. 2.

2. The virus will be with us for some time and locking down will only make renewed outbreaks more dangerous, because there will be less immunity in the population.

  • That logic informed Sweden's plan to shield the vulnerable but otherwise only isolate people once they experience symptoms.
  • On the one hand: Sweden's chief epidemiologist projects that 25% of Stockholm's population currently has antibodies, and "herd immunity" could be achieved there "within weeks."
  • On the other hand: Sweden's death rate is currently far higher than its locked-down neighbors, and we don't know how long immunity from the virus will last.
  • The U.K. also abandoned its similar approach after concluding that its hospitals would be overrun.

3. Closing schools and businesses while forcing people into isolation will ultimately do more damage than the virus itself.

  • This argument from politicians and business leaders seemed to fade in Europe and the U.S. as the scale of the pandemic became clear, though it has returned amid the debate over when and how to reopen.
  • On the one hand: Reducing deaths from the coronavirus clearly benefits society and the economy, neither of which would be functioning normally even without shutdowns.
  • On the other hand: The damage from lockdowns will be lasting, particularly in the developing world. Leaders including Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan have warned that preventing deaths from COVID-19 will mean causing deaths from hunger because people need daily earnings to feed their families.

The bottom line: Many leaders who have imposed lockdowns quite reasonably argue that, considering the alternatives, they really had no choice. But while the debate looks different on the other side of peak lockdown, it's a long way from over.

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