Coronavirus: Science and economics collide over how long a lockdown should last

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With more than a quarter of the world’s population in lockdown for coronavirus, many people are asking how long the restrictions need to be in place before freedom of movement is allowed. Unfortunately, there appears to be no clear answer, according to experts.

The duration of lockdowns – designed slow the infection rate to give healthcare systems a chance to prepare beds and ventilators needed by COVID-19’s victims – will depend to some extent on how successful the measures are, but also how long people can afford to stay out of work, experts say.


“I think how long [measures will be in place] differs if you are talking what is scientifically best or what the economy can handle, because I think those might be different things,” says Dr. Christine Blackburn, deputy director of the Pandemic & Biosecurity Policy Program at Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University.

The best indication for how long lockdowns may be in place can be gleaned from China, said Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the WHO Director-General, talking to the World Economic Forum. He pointed to Wuhan which was on lockdown for 10 weeks, while other provinces were on lockdown for one to two months.

But the duration of lockdowns depends on how well control measures to fight the virus are implemented. In China, strict testing, tracking, and surveillance enabled the country to contain and control the virus.

Read more: Governments track coronavirus infections, but what about tracking immunity?

But in Europe and North America, infections rates are still rising fast. In the UK, the lockdown could be in place for six months, warned one top health official last week. In the UAE, a weekend-long lockdown put in place so authorities could clean the streets has been extended for another two weeks.

Anthony Fauci, the top coronavirus expert in the US said during a White House press briefing, “If we get to the part of the curve… Where it goes down to no new cases, no new deaths during a period of time, I think it makes sense that you’re going to have to relax social distancing,” without referencing a specific time frame.

He said he hoped there would soon be a more robust system to identify, isolate, and contact trace those who were infected.

“If you have a good containment program, that prevents having to do mitigation,” which is what the US is doing right now,” he said. “The ultimate solution to a virus that might keep coming back is a vaccine.”

But a vaccine is still at least a year away, even though trials have kicked off in parts of the world.

“The long end of the range – 18 months – is based on what would scientifically be best. Keep people sheltered in place until there is a vaccine available,” Blackburn said. “It's just not likely realistic.”

Keeping borders closed for that period would have catastrophic consequences for economies. Globally, airline and tourism industries have been hardest hit, but the knock-on effects have been felt across the whole economy, with hospitality, retail, and restaurants in a state of collapse. Oil prices have fallen sharply.

In the US alone, more than 10 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the last two weeks of March and the numbers are expected to keep surging, with some economists predicting the loss of 20 million jobs — or more.

In Europe, official data show one million lost their job in two weeks at the end of March, although economists say the real figure is much higher.

Blackburn predicted that lockdowns, or at least partial lockdowns, in the Middle East, Europe and North America would not be lifted until June at the earliest.

And there are significant risks associated with lifting restrictions too quickly because infection can be imported back into the country. China, having announced that the worst of the virus had passed, is now experiencing more imported cases than endogenous cases in certain provinces as flights resumed.

On March 27, the country banned all foreign visitors as a result, suggesting it had eased restrictions prematurely.

The view from the Gulf

Gulf countries are currently faced with weighing up the short-term and long-term risks of keeping anti-coronavirus measures in place.

“I suspect the GCC states will be very careful about opening up borders too quickly,” Sanam Vakil, Senior Research Fellow in Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program told Al Arabiya English.

So far, Saudi Arabia has temporarily halted all Umrah pilgrimages and has recently put Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah on lockdown.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have managed to contain the coronavirus outbreak, with experts pointing to lessons learned from the 2012 MERS epidemic.

“Having learned from the 2012 MERS crisis, the GCC countries have in general been preemptive in their response by imposing lockdowns and in offering fiscal response,” Chatham House’s Vakil said.

Read more: Past health crisis helped shape rapid Saudi and Kuwaiti coronavirus response

Curfews are currently in place in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait. Oman, Bahrain and Qatar have also implemented strict measures to slow the spread of the virus.

In 2012, MERS, the last coronavirus to circulate, began in Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom and neighboring Kuwait scrambled to respond adequately. This time, the countries were ready and took measures early to contain the novel coronavirus.

“These measures have been important to demonstrate good governance and accountability to the local populations but also to the international community and expats at a time of fiscal uncertainty and low oil prices,” added Vakil.

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