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Infectious Diseases

11 June 2020

What if there were no lockdowns for Covid-19? Analysis of a study is showing a shocking alternative

A new research paper focused on areas in 6 countries to show estimates of Covid-19 figures if no measure of lockdown was imposed.

  • Many countries implemented lockdown regulations as Covid-19 spread.
  • With several non-medical repercussions, we wonder if this was worth it.
  • Data of a new study suggests that lockdown avoided millions more Covid-19 cases. 


As the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated across the globe, governments worldwide had to implement measures that had never been used in their lifetime – lockdowns, border closures, social distancing, the cancellation of large gatherings and closure of several services, schools and businesses – in an effort to contain the rapid spread of Covid-19.

South Africa's first case of Covid-19 was reported on 5 March. Within two weeks, a nationwide hard lockdown was announced as the number of cases rose. As the effectiveness of lockdown is questioned and the economic repercussions are weighed up against the efforts to save lives, many are wondering "is this worth it?"

But new data from the Global Policy Laboratory at the University of California in Berkeley suggests maybe it was, at least for several other regions.

New study shows a shocking alternative reality without lockdown

A new pre-published paper based on the data appeared on the online version of the journal Nature. The study authors compiled new data based on 1 717 local regions and their non-pharmaceutical measures to contain Covid-19. These regions are in China, South Korea, Italy, France, Iran and the United States.

According to the research, an estimated daily increase of 38% cases in Covid-19 was calculated during the period when no political lockdown measures were taken. The study authors stated that non-pharmaceutical political interventions in the regions had significantly and substantially slowed down the spread of infection.

Although many of these measures had other far-reaching effects on the regions and countries, the study authors maintained that the policy packages in place had large beneficial outcomes for the health of citizens.

What do the numbers say?

The study suggested that without any lockdown policies in place, the US alone would have a nearly double rate of infection every second day between 3 March and 6 April. Instead of the 1.9 million cases currently reported in the US, the number would have risen steeply to a shocking 60 million.

The early lockdown interventions in China had even greater success in curbing the spread, according to the research. The policies were implemented as early as 16 January and may have prevented about 285 million infections, where 84 000 Covid-19 cases have been reported in the nation.

In Europe, another study suggests that the lockdown policies in Italy and France may have saved as many as 200 000 people needing hospitalisation. In Italy, an estimated 49 million cases were prevented and 45 million in France.

Iran could have had as many as 54 million cases and South Korea 38 million, if it weren't for their policies and non-pharmaceutical interventions, the researchers calculated.

Are these numbers set in stone?

As Covid-19 cases and deaths slowly creep up in South Africa and lockdown levels have been relaxed from Level 5 to Level 3, many people are questioning whether the lockdown is working at all. Could this latest study be applicable for South Africa if the study wasn't even featured in South Africa?

As with any research, it is important to note that there are limitations – the data is extrapolated from the beginning of the outbreak in these regions. The regulations for social distancing and lockdown were also not standardised globally and the measures differed from nation to nation.

The researchers do, however, mention they used a method known as a "reduced-form" econometric technique, which is commonly used in research to measure the effects of events.

This technique aims to measure the magnitude of the effect in a general change in policy without requiring prior information about the fundamental epidemiological parameters or mechanisms. This means that the numbers were solely based on infections in regions where measures were taken using empirical data and collective influence, without taking individual factors into account.

The study authors mention in their research that a change in public knowledge during the period of their research can affect their results.

For example, if people were to gain more understanding and knowledge of the virus (such as washing hands, knowing how it spreads and wearing masks), that can also cause a reduction in infection rates and would cause the researchers to overstate the effectiveness of lockdown.

Why is this research vital for our understanding of Covid-19?

As the understanding of Covid-19 grows across the globe, the study authors state that their findings may help governments in other countries where Covid-19 is present to make decisions based on the numbers. According to them, the findings may help inform whether current lockdown policies should be deployed, intensified or lifted.

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