Why is coronavirus lockdown necessary?

With an increasing number of countries around the globe going into lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people forced to stay home may be wondering why these measures are necessary, how long they will need to go on for and what it will take before life goes back to normal.

  • 25 March 2020
  • 5 min read
  • by Priya Joi
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash


How has the new coronavirus spread across the world so fast?

Viruses have varying abilities to infect people. For COVID-19, each person with the virus can go on to infect around 2.5 people. If each of those people go about their day as normal, and infect another 2.5 people, within a month, 406 people would be infected just from that first infection.

COVID-19 is more infectious than other coronaviruses such as SARS or MERS-CoV. The “case fatality rate” (CFR), or risk of dying from the new coronavirus, is about 4.4%, (although this risk varies by geography, and also can change over the course of a pandemic) is also less deadly than SARS (10%) or MERS-CoV (34%). So, if COVID-19 is less deadly than previous epidemic threats, why has it spread so far and wide that it has brought the world to a standstill?

The answer seems to be precisely because the new coronavirus is less deadly – thousands of people with either no symptoms or very mild symptoms have been spreading the virus unaware that they were even infected. This means that before health experts were aware of the problem and started to recommend control measures, the virus had already spread to multiple countries.

Why is social distancing important in slowing the pandemic?

The ability of individuals who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, but can still spread the disease, explains why social distancing – limiting contact with others – in addition to other actions such as washing your hands and not touching your face, is so critical. The World Health Organization is starting to refer to it as physical distancing instead to emphasise the importance of being far away enough to avoid infection from the respiratory droplets that carry the virus. It is important that every single person adheres to this, whether or not they think they are sick.

For people who are symptomatic, or have been in contact with someone who is showing symptoms, most countries are advising total self-isolation, for a week or two in order to limit further transmission of the virus.

Why are some countries enforcing quarantine at home?

In the absence of treatment or a vaccine, ceasing most human contact is really the only way to stop the spread of the virus. Essentially, the less contact people have with each other, the less the virus can spread. Given the rapid spread of the virus, social lockdown is urgent to bring overall transmission down, and see whether testing followed by isolation could be effective – this is all in an attempt to ‘flatten the curve’ or reduce infections and spread cases out over a longer time frame to avoid overwhelming health systems.

Since the new coronavirus can spread unnoticed so easily, many governments have felt the best way to ensure people have minimal contact with each other is to order total lockdowns, with people only being allowed to leave to get food or medicine, and to practise social distancing when they do leave their houses. Countries that had epidemics first, such as China and South Korea, have brought cases down dramatically through widespread testing and social distancing.

The rationale is to ensure that people with serious illness can seek medical care, and those who are infectious but asymptomatic or have mild illness don’t pass it on to anyone else.

When can my life get back to normal?

Life under lockdown brings many challenges, and there have been many instances of people flouting advice on social distancing or isolation. But the more people abide by it the more effective it will be. Few of the countries that have implemented full lockdown are committing to a date when they will lift restrictions, however, because they will need to see how the pandemic evolves.

They are also waiting to see which of the many drugs and vaccines that are being investigated might bear fruit. Until there is a viable vaccine, there is no way other than social restriction to stop the spread of the virus. Whether full lockdown is feasible to maintain for many months is debatable, and it is possible that some countries may fluctuate between rigid and less rigid measures for the rest of the year.

Most countries are waiting to see how their lockdown and quarantine measures are reducing cases of the virus. China has just lifted its lockdown in Wuhan, the city where the pandemic originated, two months after it was clear that the number of cases had dramatically reduced. It seems plausible that once other countries start to see such a reduction in cases, they too will begin easing restrictions, even if only temporarily.