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Are COVID-19 Lockdowns Sustainable? What Health Experts Say

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Key Takeaways

  • Lockdowns were important in the early days of the pandemic, but experts say they are not sustainable.
  • Instead of restrictive measures, health experts want people to follow COVID-19 prevention measures, including wearing a mask, social distancing, and proper handwashing.

Lockdowns or shelter-in-place policies were key in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did global stay-at-home orders help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, but they also bought time for elected officials and healthcare experts to better understand the virus and plan a response to it.

Now, many months into the pandemic, some health experts are warning against using mass shutdowns of businesses and services as a means to control COVID-19. In fact, they say we need to find ways to live with the virus until a vaccine or effective treatment arrives. 

Experts: Lockdowns Not a Primary Measure

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently said during a press conference that massive lockdowns should not be the first response as countries continue to battle the novel coronavirus. 

Mike Ryan, MPH, the executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said that while lockdowns sometimes cannot be avoided, they are “punishing to communities, to society, and to everything else.”

“We don't want to flip from no cases, everything's open, [to] a few cases, everything shuts down again,” Ryan said in a statement. “There are many things that can be done between those two points and we should make every effort to do so in order to keep our social and economic lives open and particularly schools and other vital services.”

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently commented that the situation would have to get “really, really bad” for him to suggest a national lockdown.

In an interview with CBS News, Fauci said that we should be using public health measures to create a safe gateway to reopening the economy. "We want to use public health measures, not to get in the way of opening the economy, but to being a safe gateway to opening the economy," Fauci told CBS correspondent Jonathan Lapook for 60 Minutes. "So instead of having an opposition, open up the economy, get jobs back, or shut down. No. Put 'shut down' away and say, 'We're going to use public health measures to help us safely get to where we wanna go.'"

Why Lockdowns Are Not Sustainable 

The purpose of lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders at the start of the pandemic was to protect people from contracting and spreading COVID-19 as the severity of the virus became evident, Cynthia Carr, MPA, MSc, an epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research Inc., tells Verywell. 

“We hoped a lockdown would stop the chain of transmission so that it would be a short-term measure, and then life could get back to normal, or approaching normal, in the absence of a vaccine or a treatment,” says Carr. “So, the lockdown could never be sustainable over a lengthy period of time.”

James G. Hodge, Jr, JD, director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, tells Verywell shelter-in-place orders were effective during the initial six to 10 weeks of the pandemic “where they were implemented quite fully across the United States.” 

As 2020 continues on, resistance to these measures grows. In many jurisdictions across the U.S., shelter-in-place orders have been legally challenged.

People are also growing fatigued of restrictions and want to keep the economy open as safely as possible. Hodge says this will require striking a balance. “How do you protect the public's health, and yet keep the economy running at some pace that allows for other interventions to actually be successful? We're finding answers,” he says.

What This Means For You

Some experts are warning against lockdowns as a means to control COVID-19, advising that we find ways to live with the virus until a vaccine or effective treatment arrives, while practicing preventative measures. This means continuing to social distance, wearing a face mask, and washing our hands frequently and correctly.

Balancing Public Health and the Economy

Learning to live with the virus is important until a vaccine is approved or an effective treatment is found. However, measures like strict lockdowns can have implications on the economy and people’s physical and mental well-being. People have lost their jobs, businesses have permanently closed, and many people are now dealing with pandemic-related anxiety and depression. 

Cynthia Carr, MPA, MSc

With every public health measure, there needs to be consideration of the impact to economic well-being and social well-being.

— Cynthia Carr, MPA, MSc

“We [need to] try as much as possible to minimize the broader effects on society through large-scale, complete national shutdowns,” Ryan said at the WHO press conference.

Carr adds that a pandemic response cannot just consider the virus or disease at hand, it has to think about the potential harm of response measures and how to reduce that harm.

“With every public health measure, there needs to be consideration of the impact to economic well-being and social well-being,” Carr says. “When you look at the World Health Organization’s pandemic planning guidelines, those [factors] aren’t surprises, they’re always discussed together: social well-being, economic well-being, and the science of the disease.”

How to Protect Yourself From COVID-19

Tim Sly, PhD, an epidemiologist and a professor of public health at Ryerson University, tells Verywell that "globally, we are potentially still at the beginning of the pandemic."

Sly says that because things could get much worse before they get better, people need to keep following health protocols and governments invest in contact tracing —especially as we enter a second wave of the pandemic.

The same health measures that experts have recommended for months are just as important now as they were at the start of the pandemic: face masks, handwashing, and social distancing continue to be vital methods for preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

"Key public interface positions [like] long-term care homes and hospital staff, taxi drivers, even [public transit] drivers and teachers, all could be tested each week as a condition of employment," Sly says. "We would begin to know who has the virus and start to control community spread."

As cases rise, Ryan highlighted at the WHO press conference that governments should also focus on other measures including surveillance, contact tracing, and community education.  

If someone has been exposed to COVID-19 or tests positive for it, Carr says it's vital they isolate and follow public health rules. Ignoring the limits put on group gatherings and socializing with large groups is dangerous.

Hodge says that for the businesses that remain open, it’s important that COVID-19 prevention measures are in place and followed. Not all businesses will be able to operate as usual, and the focus should be on operating with “protections in place, kind of like outdoor dining at restaurants.” That also means that masks need to be mandatory everywhere indoors.

Businesses and services that can operate remotely or virtually should continue to do so. Many law firms, universities, and doctor's offices are making use of telehealth.

“When you can operate those virtually against the backdrop of a highly spreadable disease like COVID-19, well you do it," Hodge says. "And you prepare to do it for the long-haul, not for the short-run.”

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