Prior to Covid-19 there was a strong global health discourse that argued against lockdowns and similar mass quarantines.(Bloomberg)
Prior to Covid-19 there was a strong global health discourse that argued against lockdowns and similar mass quarantines.(Bloomberg)

From the Bubonic plague to 2021, why lockdowns look set to stay

A year after the lockdown imposed in the Chinese city of Wuhan shocked the world, the tactic is turning out to be an enduring tool for quelling the coronavirus almost everywhere.
Bloomberg
PUBLISHED ON JAN 18, 2021 05:54 PM IST

A year after the lockdown imposed in the Chinese city of Wuhan shocked the world, the tactic is turning out to be an enduring tool for quelling the coronavirus almost everywhere.

When the first large-scale lockdown in modern times was implemented in China on Jan. 23 at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was then deemed unproven and unthinkable, particularly by democratic governments who balked at the implications for human rights violations of limiting citizens’ freedom of movement on such a huge scale.

Yet almost 12 months on, the U.K. is in the midst of its third nationwide lockdown as it battles a mutated strain of the coronavirus. In Australia, the recent discovery of one case in Brisbane prompted a three-day lockdown. And China, which is experiencing its biggest outbreak since the start of the pandemic with over 500 cases, locked down three cities surrounding Beijing this month.

“Prior to Covid-19 there was a strong global health discourse that argued against lockdowns and similar mass quarantines. This is but one area of thinking that the current pandemic has overturned,” said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong.

“As far as is possible, lockdowns are going to become part of the essential toolkit for governments to use in addressing the ongoing as well as future outbreaks,” he said.

Wartime measures

The speed with which China locked down millions of people when the pandemic broke out marked the first time that the measure had been taken on such a massive scale in modern times.

Until last year, severe lockdowns were synonymous with the waves of bubonic plague that swept through Europe from the 14th century. Even during the Spanish Flu of the early 20th century, no lockdowns were centrally imposed. China did, however, impose three major lockdowns in recent history: during a bubonic plague outbreak in its northeast in 1901, and two short ones following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and another amid a bubonic plague outbreak in Gansu province in 2014.

Foreign countries who were taken aback at the Wuhan lockdown found themselves doing much the same just months later as the virus spread uncontrollably.

After an infectious disease reaches a certain number of people, lockdowns can’t be avoided because no other measure can stem spread, said Jiang Qingwu, a professor of epidemiology at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Though it’s clear that there remains a large gulf between what the Chinese government is able to impose on its citizens during a lockdown compared to democratic countries. Ever quick to declare what the government routinely refers to as “wartime” measures in response to relatively low numbers of infections, local authorities also ensured compliance by actions such as totally sealing off residential compounds. In some cases, people are not allowed to leave to get food, with deliveries arranged to them instead.

China’s unproven antiviral solution: quarantine of 40 million

According to the authors of a study conducted by Bloomberg Economics comparing how democratic countries fared against more authoritarian ones in dealing with the pandemic, “a rapid and stringent lockdown is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that comes more naturally to authoritarian than democratic regimes.”

In China’s latest lockdown in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, the stringent measures are reminiscent of those from the Wuhan lockdown, which ended on April 8 after infections dwindled to zero. Residents in the northeastern city, 180 miles (290 kilometers) southwest of Beijing, are required to stay home for seven days as the city embarks on a second round of mass testing for the entire population of 11 million as cases in the region exceed 500. Flights and trains into and out of the city have been halted, as well as almost all public transport.

In contrast, democracies such as the U.K. in their versions of lockdowns have generally allowed people to leave the house to purchase essentials such as food and medicine, walk their dogs or exercise. Schools remained open in France’s autumn lockdown, while in its latest two-week lockdown this month, Israel is allowing people to gather outdoors in groups of up to 10, with exemptions for religious activities.

U.K. faces harder lockdown restrictions as Covid infections soar

But there’s also been examples of democratic governments imposing extreme rules. One state government in Australia, where officials have reacted fiercely to flareups, banned even outdoor exercise and dog-walking during a brief lockdown in November.

Winter resurgence

Chinese authorities argue that the country’s bounceback from the crisis proves that their approach works. And a winter resurgence of the virus in countries like South Korea, Japan and Sweden, which originally saw success with a minimal-disruption approach that avoided lockdowns, buttresses the argument for stricter measures, particularly as fatigued citizens flout stay-at-home advice.

The best and worst places to be in Covid: U.S. sinks in ranking

“Given the huge number and high density of China, we have proved that [these measures] are very effective,” Mi Feng, spokesperson at the country’s National Health Commission, told Bloomberg News.

In addition to concerns over civil liberties, many governments remain hesitant to impose the sorts of full lockdowns as seen in China because of the economic cost -- though research by the International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook showed that if countries were decisive in taking such measures, they performed better in terms of protecting the economy. New Zealand is one such example, recording just 25 deaths after quickly imposing lockdowns, with life resuming to near normality soon after.

Early lockdowns saved jobs in government responses to pandemic

However, even China, whose economy has roared back to life, is cognizant of economic pressure. Since the Wuhan lockdown, authorities have tellingly steered clear of shutting down economically significant cities like Beijing despite substantial flareups. Officials turned largely to aggressive contact-tracing during an outbreak in the capital last summer.

“Effective as lockdowns are, they are costly,” said Yanzhong Huang, Director of the Center for Global Health Studies at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University. “Even for China, it’s unsustainable in the long term,” he added, likening reflexive lockdown decisions to “shooting cannonballs at mosquitoes.”

With vaccinations drives now being rapidly rolled out across major western countries and China, the hope is that lockdowns will be far less common in 2021, though substantial uncertainty remains over how long it’ll take to vaccinate enough of the world population to safely re-open the global economy.

Despite the economic implications, Covid-19’s legacy is likely that lockdowns will continue to be deployed during outbreaks of highly communicable diseases in the future, especially since they’re now a familiar concept to people everywhere for the first time in a century.

“Restrictive quarantine itself is not a new invention and its application dates back to the Black Death in the medieval times,” said Huang. “But it’s ironic that such an old method remains the most effective despite the tremendous progress in medical sciences.”

Follow more stories on Facebook and Twitter

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
Globally, 265 million doses of vaccines have been administered, with 80% in just 10 countries, WHO's top emergency expert Mike Ryan said on social media on Wednesday night.(AFP)
Globally, 265 million doses of vaccines have been administered, with 80% in just 10 countries, WHO's top emergency expert Mike Ryan said on social media on Wednesday night.(AFP)

Waive Covid vaccine patents to benefit poor nations, activists say

Posted by Harshit Sabarwal | Reuters
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 10:00 PM IST
Activists seeking a waiver of intellectual property rules unfurled a huge sign reading "No Covid Monopolies - Wealthy Countries Stop Blocking TRIPS Waiver" in the park next to World Trade Organization's (WTO's) headquarters on Lake Geneva.
Close
Pope Francis begins his historic trip to war-scarred Iraq tomorrow to comfort one of the world's oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.(AFP)
Pope Francis begins his historic trip to war-scarred Iraq tomorrow to comfort one of the world's oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.(AFP)

Iraq beefs up security for pope amid rising violence, pandemic

Posted by Kunal Gaurav | Reuters, Baghdad
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 09:38 PM IST
Security forces and armoured vehicles filled otherwise empty streets surrounding two cordoned-off churches the pope is scheduled to go to in central Baghdad.
Close
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan announced on Thursday he would seek a vote of confidence in the National Assembly this weekend to prove he still has the support of majority lawmakers despite the shock defeat of the finance minister in the Senate's elections.(File Photo/REUTERS)
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan announced on Thursday he would seek a vote of confidence in the National Assembly this weekend to prove he still has the support of majority lawmakers despite the shock defeat of the finance minister in the Senate's elections.(File Photo/REUTERS)

‘If I lose, …’: PM Imran Khan’s emotional pitch ahead of trust vote this week

By HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 04, 2021 09:50 PM IST
  • Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan insisted that he wouldn’t abandon his campaign against corruption even if loses the trust vote.
Close
From a high of 39,090 in 2010-11 to a low of 16,550 in 2016-17, there has been a steady downward spiral of Indian students coming to the UK, but for the first time in recent years, the number is on the upswing(Reuters/ Representative Image)
From a high of 39,090 in 2010-11 to a low of 16,550 in 2016-17, there has been a steady downward spiral of Indian students coming to the UK, but for the first time in recent years, the number is on the upswing(Reuters/ Representative Image)

New UK post-study graduate route to open for Indian students in July

PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 09:02 PM IST
  • The UK has also extended concessions for students unable to travel to the UK after getting admission to British educational institutions because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was done due to the continuing disruption in international travel.
Close
Sakae Kato plays with cats that he rescued, called Mokkun and Charm, who are both infected with feline leukemia virus, at his home, in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.(Reuters)
Sakae Kato plays with cats that he rescued, called Mokkun and Charm, who are both infected with feline leukemia virus, at his home, in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.(Reuters)

Wider Image: The man who saves forgotten cats in Fukushima's nuclear zone

Reuters
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:54 PM IST
The 57-year-old, a small construction business owner in his former life, says his decision to stay as 160,000 other people evacuated the area was spurred in part by the shock of finding dead pets in abandoned houses he helped demolish.
Close
A 3D plastic representation of the Facebook logo(Reuters)
A 3D plastic representation of the Facebook logo(Reuters)

Thai military denies involvement in network removed by Facebook

Reuters
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:42 PM IST
  • Marking the first time it had taken down Thai accounts alleged to be linked to the government, Facebook said on Wednesday it had removed a Thailand-based network that included 77 accounts, 72 pages and 18 groups on Facebook and 18 accounts on Instagram, citing "coordinated inauthentic behaviour".
Close
A parking sign for electric vehicles. (Reuters)
A parking sign for electric vehicles. (Reuters)

Singapore won’t allow new diesel cars and cabs from 2025

Bloomberg
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:39 PM IST
About 2.9% of passenger cars in Singapore run on diesel, while the proportion is as high as 41.5% for taxis, according to Land Transport Authority figures. Most goods vehicles and buses in the city-state run on diesel and won’t be affected by the new rule, announced Thursday by the government.
Close
A UN report released on Thursday, March 4, 2021 estimates 17% of the food produced globally each year is wasted.(AP)
A UN report released on Thursday, March 4, 2021 estimates 17% of the food produced globally each year is wasted.(AP)

UN report says 17% of food wasted at consumer level

Posted by Kunal Gaurav | Reuters
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:38 PM IST
The report, produced jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and WRAP, also found that consumer waste was broadly similar in rich and poor countries.
Close
Indian diaspora hold 'Tiranga Yatra' against Republic Day violence, in Vancouver on January 26, 2021. (ANI/FILE)
Indian diaspora hold 'Tiranga Yatra' against Republic Day violence, in Vancouver on January 26, 2021. (ANI/FILE)

India calls on Canada to ensure safety of Indo-Canadians

UPDATED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:35 PM IST
This communication comes in the wake of reports of threat and intimidation against Indo-Canadians by pro-Khalistani elements in the country
Close
Police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, where one of two mass shootings occurred.(AP / File Photo)
Police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, where one of two mass shootings occurred.(AP / File Photo)

New Zealand police charge man after threat against mosques attacked in 2019

Posted by Kunal Gaurav | Reuters
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:28 PM IST
Police said an online threat was made this week on the 4chan website against the Al Noor mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre.
Close
European Union flags flutter outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.(Reuters)
European Union flags flutter outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.(Reuters)

EU wants employers to report pay levels to fix gender gap

AP
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:27 PM IST
  • Even though the gender pay gap across the 27-nation bloc has been reduced to 14% for people doing exactly the same work, the European Commission wants to eliminate the disparity by imposing specific rules to make pay levels public.
Close
Thursday's report from the Labor Department showed that jobless claims rose by 9,000 from the previous week.(AP)
Thursday's report from the Labor Department showed that jobless claims rose by 9,000 from the previous week.(AP)

US jobless claims tick up to 745,000 as layoffs remain high

AP
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:25 PM IST
  • 4.3 million Americans are receiving traditional state unemployment benefits. Counting supplemental federal unemployment programs that were established to soften the economic damage from the virus, an estimated 18 million people are collecting some form of jobless aid.
Close
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street in London, Britain March 3, 2021.(REUTERS)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street in London, Britain March 3, 2021.(REUTERS)

Boris Johnson gives up ‘late-night cheese’ to lose 14 pounds

Posted by Kunal Gaurav | Bloomberg, London
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:23 PM IST
In a video posted on Instagram, Johnson said he had lost “quite a lot” of weight by eating fewer carbohydrates and going for early-morning runs.
Close
While Biden has called for a ban on assault weapons, any new gun legislation will likely face an uphill climb given the political polarization that has tripped up past administrations.(AP)
While Biden has called for a ban on assault weapons, any new gun legislation will likely face an uphill climb given the political polarization that has tripped up past administrations.(AP)

GOP state lawmakers seek to nullify federal gun limits

Posted by Harshit Sabarwal | AP
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:16 PM IST
Legislation in at least a dozen states seeks to nullify any new restrictions, such as ammunition limits or a ban on certain types of weapons. Some bills would make it a crime for local police officers to enforce federal gun laws.
Close
The earthquake triggered warnings of a possible hazardous tsunami.(HT Archive)
The earthquake triggered warnings of a possible hazardous tsunami.(HT Archive)

Strong 7.2 magnitude earthquake shakes New Zealand, tsunami warning issued

Reuters, Wellington
UPDATED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:26 PM IST
Tsunami waves were possible within 300 km (180 miles) of the quake's epicentre, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP