On April 8, 2020, the Chinese government made a historic move by lifting the 76-day lockdown on Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. This unprecedented action, termed as a “sealed city” by locals, marked a new approach in battling a pandemic, drawing both shock and skepticism from international observers.
The concept of widespread lockdowns, never before seen in public health history, raised concerns globally. Critics, including China human rights experts and global health law professors, questioned the efficacy and ethical implications of such measures.
China, however, remained committed to its “zero-COVID” strategy. By mid-March 2020, with approximately 50 million people under lockdown, China celebrated a day with no domestic transmissions, viewing it as evidence of their approach’s success. Citizens saw their confinement as a patriotic duty.
Over the next two years, lockdowns became China’s default response to outbreaks. Yet, by March 2022, when Shanghai faced a surge in cases, the public’s sentiment had shifted. Anger and despair replaced the initial sense of duty, culminating in tragic incidents. When lockdowns were eventually lifted, China experienced a wave of COVID-19 cases comparable to other parts of the world, partly attributed to inadequate vaccination efforts.
The adoption of lockdowns by numerous countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., remains a central mystery of the pandemic. While lockdowns had been discussed in scientific circles since 2005, influenced in part by a high-school student’s model, their implementation lacked a robust scientific basis. D.A. Henderson, a distinguished epidemiologist, contended that predicting human behavior in response to such measures was inherently challenging.
The Bush administration’s pandemic plan in 2007 stopped short of mandating lockdowns but emphasized “social distancing measures.” The belief in lockdown effectiveness persisted, despite Henderson’s reservations. This paved the way for the rapid acceptance of lockdowns during the COVID-19 crisis.
Flattening the curve, a key rationale for lockdowns, aimed to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. It did not imply eradicating the virus, but rather managing its spread. Over time, however, some regions extended lockdowns well beyond the immediate crisis, leading to questions about their impact on saving lives.
Studies on the effectiveness of lockdowns yielded mixed results, with varying definitions and methodologies. Some suggested that strict lockdowns were not significantly correlated with reduced mortality rates. This complexity calls for a nuanced evaluation of the costs and benefits of future lockdown measures.