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Is Lockdown Still a Good Idea? What the Data Tells Us

In public perception, the lockdown has become synonymous with the main line of defense against the coronavirus outbreak. However, it has also gained some notoriety due to its harshness, leading some to believe that it was a flawed measure in the first place. To figure out which viewpoint is more valid, we take a look […]

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In public perception, the lockdown has become synonymous with the main line of defense against the coronavirus outbreak. However, it has also gained some notoriety due to its harshness, leading some to believe that it was a flawed measure in the first place. To figure out which viewpoint is more valid, we take a look at the data on whether lockdown is ultimately worth it and what are our alternatives.

Is Lockdown Worth It?

As the COVID-19 pandemic marched forward at a frightening pace, lockdowns became the most recognizable response to the health crisis. This is understandable: such measures are intuitive, easy to grasp, and visible, so they align well both with public perception and policymakers’ goals. However, their radical and straightforward nature has a price, as it wrecks the economy as hard as it does the virus. As you might expect, this quickly escalated to the idea that we could fair better without grinding society to a halt.

Still, it would be wrong to make decisions based on sentiment or political affiliation, so the right direction to look is data. The catch here is that currently, the available data is a mess. Depending on what you decide to use as a reference, it is possible to prove virtually anything, and the abundance of motivated parties does not make things easier. Here’s what we do know, though.

  • Lockdowns do slow down the spread of COVID-19 – eventually, at least
  • The timely introduction is a major factor in lockdown’s effectiveness (i.e. launching it too late won’t get you anywhere)
  • Lockdown is neither the only nor the most efficient government intervention responsible for the containment of the pandemic

The most important takeaway, however, is this: as of now, it is nearly impossible to tell whether the adverse effects of lockdown on society justify the public health benefits. The easiest example is education: while it is true that closing schools does minimize the spread of a virus, the long-term effects of disrupted learning are so far-reaching that many organizations actually discourage it in favor of other preventive measures like sanitation and promotion of healthy behaviors. The same goes for other domains: as long as the business can operate without endangering the well-being of people, there’s little reason to demand closing it down.

A Word of Warning

Now, at this point, some readers might be tempted to grab any message that questions the feasibility of lockdowns and run with it. Not only that, it might be straight out disheartening to realize your local authorities are wrong in their decisions. The important thing to understand here is that we are still figuring it out. A year of coronavirus might feel like forever on an individual level, it is not nearly enough to create a definitive guide on curbing the pandemic. Lockdown felt like a logical thing to do, so we did it. While it did help, it turned out to be far less effective than we hoped it would be, so it’s time to go back to the drawing board. To be clear – this should not be a reason to blame the policymakers, and certainly not a signal to throw the babies out with the bathwater by neglecting all protective measures.

What’s the Way to Go?

So, now that we know the lockdown won’t save us, should we stop trying altogether? Absolutely not. There are still many ways to stop the spread of COVID-19 that has proven to be effective, and many more ones will probably crop up in the future. The guiding principles proposed by the CDC sum it up best:

  1. Promote healthy behaviors
  2. Maintain healthy environments
  3. Maintain healthy operations

The first aspect is probably the most difficult to implement as it goes against life-long habits and requires the creation of what is called respiratory etiquette. And, as we have seen in the past, the requirement to wear a mask may be as jarring as a demand to shut down the entire economy. The second one involves measures like sanitation of high-touch surfaces, adequate ventilation of high-traffic areas, and modification of physical environments. The third one covers things like regulatory compliance, introduction of new safety policies in the workplaces, staff training, and other organizational aspects.

Now, none of these is actually new. In fact, there is already plenty of clumsy examples of implementing these preventive measures. However, as our understanding of the problem improves, so does our response. There are already a number of innovative solutions that combine the expertise from different fields to come up with a working solution, which combines physical disinfection with promotion of healthy behaviors, monitoring, and data collection, and the application of behavioral economics to make people more susceptible to good decisions.

Wrapping Up

To some, the lockdown feels like a necessary evil for overcoming the ongoing health crisis. To others, it looks like a clumsy and ineffective attempt of appealing to the attitudes of the public. The data actually shows it is both – while it does play its role, it is certainly neither the only nor even the main line of defense against the virus. While it may indeed be necessary in some circumstances, in many cases it can be skipped in favor of more efficient and less costly alternatives, like changes in organizations’ policies, advanced sanitation strategies, and the promotion of respiratory etiquette.

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