Weekend Readings | Learning from lockdowns

by Kevin Schofield


This weekend’s reading is a journal article Nature looking at what scientists have learned from studying the results of various government measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 – and lockdowns in particular.

The first, and perhaps the main finding, is that drawing conclusions about the impact of lockdowns is tricky business. What makes things difficult turns out to be many of the classic challenges of conducting scientific research.

The question we really want to ask is, “What impact did the lockdowns have compared to what would have happened without the lockdowns?” This is called a counterfactual: an outcome that did not happen, but could have happened under different circumstances. Counterfactuals can’t be tested directly, or at least not until someone invents a time machine so we can go back and change what really happened. So the researchers are instead trying to find the best point of comparison with another very similar place, except for the one thing that is being tested. So, for example, if we wanted to know what would have happened to Seattle without a COVID-19 lockdown, we could look to other US cities with similar population demographics and economic bases that chose not to lock down. (admittedly a very small set).

Trying to identify such points of comparison highlights the second problem: most places have adopted multiple measures to combat COVID-19, so the effects of these measures are all confounded. This makes it nearly impossible to disentangle the impact of lockdowns alone.

The third problem is the “compare apples to oranges” issue: Lockdowns have taken many different forms. Some cities and states have issued sweeping “stay-at-home” orders, while others have closed schools and businesses, and still others have banned large gatherings, small gatherings, indoor gatherings and cross-border travel. And, of course, many have embraced a mixture of these types of confinements.

As far as the researchers were able to draw conclusions, they found a big difference between the initial wave of COVID-19 in early 2020 and the second wave later that year. During the first wave, when we knew little about the virus and how it was spreading, countries that had adopted a “go fast, go fast” containment policy tended to be better off. ‘get out. It has particularly helped isolated countries like New Zealand which could largely close their borders before the virus reaches their shores. But the effectiveness of the lockdowns depended heavily on citizens’ willingness to comply and the government’s ability to enforce them; in countries like Peru, a containment policy was simply not effective, as the structure of society made it impractical and could not be enforced.

During the second wave of COVID-19, however, things changed – and the point of comparison changed. By then, we knew a lot more about COVID-19, how it spreads, and how often it leads to serious illness or death. Ask “What impact have the lockdowns had?” meant comparing it with places where people would still take many of the precautionary measures that help slow the spread of COVID-19 — wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, avoiding indoor gatherings — even without one government imposed lockdown. The researchers concluded that the second wave lockdowns therefore had a much lower impact.

And then there’s the flip side: Lockdowns have reduced the spread of COVID-19, but they’ve also had their own negative effects. They drastically reduced economic activity, closed restaurants and businesses, and put many people out of work. They have also increased social isolation and mental health issues for many people, interrupted standard health care, and disrupted student education. Again, however, we have to ask ourselves the counterfactual: what would have been the effect on the economy, personal mental health, health care and education without the lockdowns? It’s hard to say, although at least economically, there is evidence that places that closed quickly also had the fastest economic recovery.

The article discusses lessons learned for the remainder of this pandemic (China’s “zero COVID” policy of continued lockdown may be more harmful than helpful at this point), but raises some good points about lessons we could apply to the next pandemic. “Go hard, go fast” seems like a good initial strategy, although all of our practice and experience with COVID-19 may mean that we will adopt precautionary measures much more quickly and reduce the comparative impact of first-wave lockdowns. . But whatever action our government takes, we can hope it has also learned important lessons about how to deal with the disparate impacts of lockdown policies on disadvantaged communities, as well as how to be more transparent about how policies are decided.

What scientists have learned from COVID lockdowns


Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. He previously worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Overviewco-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single father. He sits on the board of the Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image by Corona Borealis Studio/Shutterstock.com.

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