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Should we have another hard lockdown? Not yet

Starting a lockdown too early or too late reduces the benefits but not the hardships.
The streets of Cape Town were eerily quiet on the first day of the March 2020 lockdown. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

President Ramaphosa introduced comparatively minor lockdown restrictions on Tuesday night: limits on the size of gatherings, and no alcohol off-sales over the Eastern weekend.

So when does it make sense to introduce tougher measures?

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As of March 31, infection rates are bumbling along with minor daily fluctuations – showing signs neither of fading further, nor of resurging. Unless we think we are about to hit some sort of jackpot, infection rates can only go up. This means we have some decisions to make so that if the next wave turns out to be another big one, we don’t miss a chance to take the edge off.

One year on, there is still heated debate about lockdowns, and various vested interests are understandably gearing up to fight any whiff of further tough measures against this or that particular industry – catering, alcohol, travel, tobacco.

But we know that some lockdown measures achieve their intended aim of making it difficult to transmit SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19. We also know that lockdowns bring ‘collateral damage’ in the form of jobs lost, contracts not wanted, companies making losses and going under – and the way these costs are borne/distributed among the population is partly a political matter, not just some sort of revenge of the fates.

So the question becomes – is there a way to use lockdown measures carefully, so that the direct and indirect costs are bearable? And to this there is no uncontroversial answer – because we cannot objectively attribute values to all the relevant ‘costs’, ‘effects’ and ‘benefits’, as they are called by health economists.

But we can at least see that some options are clearly better than others.

Some have claimed that lockdowns merely delay, but do not reduce (in the long run) infections, and so really just buy time to get the health system ready to deal with the peak of the coming wave. This is partly true, but largely false.

If an early lockdown is just an isolated temporary measure, accompanied by no other precautions like reducing work contacts, wearing masks, reducing social gatherings, then, indeed, it has very little effect in reducing the total number of infections that accumulate in the long run. Why? Because, at the end of lockdown, the system will look very much like it did at the beginning, or, at best a little before the beginning of lockdown, and from this ‘beginning’ the trajectory just resumes.

If, however, we institute fairly strict lockdown measures really close to the peak of an epidemic, then there can be a much bigger impact – not just during the period of restrictions, but in terms of overall number of infections accumulated in the long run.

Here is a quick recap of what has been explained numerous times this past year:

Epidemic peaks are intertwined with immunity. If there is no immunity, people will just keep getting reinfected. But this is not what is happening with Covid. Most people, once infected, have some immunity to reinfection, at least for some time.

As people acquire immunity, the remaining infected individuals are less and less likely to come into contact with non-immune people to infect, and so outbreaks, after reaching sharp peaks, fade.

Here’s another way of putting it. Let’s say on average that infected people make sufficient contact with two people, over the course of their own infection, to pass on the virus. This means the reproductive number, R, is 2.

Now what if, at some point in time, more than half the population has somehow acquired immunity? From that time on, infected individuals will mostly make contact with immune people and therefore fail, on average, to infect more than one other person over the course of their own infection. This means the reproductive number, R, has fallen below 1. In this scenario, the epidemic fades away.

We can now analyse how lockdown measures can be used effectively. Imagine we’ve taken a deep breath and avoided serious restrictions until the rate of infections is alarmingly high. Now we institute a sudden lockdown and interrupt the activities which bring people together and make transmission possible. During this interruption, we don’t fully wipe out all infections, but many, maybe most, of the people who were infected do in fact recover, and become immune.

We will have achieved two things: 1) dramatically reduced the number of infectious people, and 2) substantially increased the number of immune people. If our timing is ‘perfect’ we will emerge from lockdown with enough collective immunity to have pushed that reproductive number below 1. Compared to what would have happened without any lockdown, the ride down the back of the peak will have begun at a smaller cumulative count of infections, and will add less to the total.

One can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the timing is ‘critical’ – in the sense that we have to somehow ‘get it just right’ to get the benefit – but it’s not like that. The models show that even an early lockdown has a bit of an effect in reducing the ultimate number of infections. Then, as the timing approaches the ‘sweet spot’, the impact increases. Even if the lockdown comes very late in the epidemic, there is some net reduction in the number of infections.

Can we quantify all this reliably, and propose some sort of perfect-timing formula? Alas, no. Not only do we not know enough about an unfolding epidemic – we don’t even agree on what is an acceptable cost, or a valued effect.

What is clear though, and what everyone should be able to agree on, is that a tough intervention when a wave has not even perceptibly begun, or a tough intervention when it is essentially over, does not buy us much. It will be better to hold our nerve, and make the sacrifices, when, indeed if, the next wave gets really bad.

© 2021 GroundUp. This article was first published here and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Licence.

COMMENTS   21

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Please stop normalising this disastrous authoritarian tool of public policy. A lockdown to ‘take the edge off’, really? There must be (and are) better ways dealing with COVID than destructive lockdowns that disproportionately punish the poor and working class. This country couldn’t afford a lockdown last year, and certainly cannot afford another – and it’s irresponsible to promote it as a possibility, ever. Ethically it is simply wrong. It’s as though in order to protect a small percentage of vulnerable people, the entire population is given chemotherapy. The damage to lives cannot be justified.

The real short answer is Yes we definitely should!!

But we wont even though stressing about losing more jobs is like rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. The damage is done if we can save a couple 1000s people we may as well. There is not one piece of news or data is see that says we will ever recover. The banks didnt help the landlords made it worse.

We’re over 1 year into “2 weeks to slow the spread” and you still believe the fear, hype and propaganda that the only solution is a hard lockdown of the entire country? Where have you been for the last year? Have you not been following the news, the stats, the comparative studies?

You must not have left your house for the last year if you still think that Lockdowns are a sustainable long-term solution. You are welcome to continue to hide under your couch for another year – but please stay out of other people’s lives.

Why are you even talking about a lockdown?
It is insane- simply because after a year now, it does not work. Enough is enough.
Even Europe has now start to return to normal (as we know it).
1) Belgium courts just ordered the government to abolish all Covid rules/regulations
2) Italian people opened up the restaurants and the people of Italy demanding the government either stop all restrictions or face a revolt.
3) Massive protest in Holland is starting to force the government to listen to THEIR people
4) German people forced Merkel to abolish the lockdown as well and she apologized to the country.

Soon the hunter(government and all politicians will be come the hunted (citizens of the country will take back their country and lives).
NDZ & all health officials/politicians that entertain these agendas/ ideas should be charged with crimes against humanity.

I’m sure we’ll revolt against NDZ and co and take SA back. Maybe in the next 1000 years, if we want to be progressive we all need to pull in together to collapse the entire government. It is possible with right minds strong opinions and ruthless facts driven by solutions, it is possible I want to collapse the ANC, literally abolish there entire rulling party across all structures

Should we have another hard lockdown? Not ever.

Alex – why in your right mind are you talking about this?
It hasn’t worked. All countries in the world are starting to abolish this evil practice. Belgium courts ordered the government, Germany (Merkel) made an about turn and apologized to the country, Holland citizens are becoming “more vocal” as well.

All NDZ/politicians and leaders who entertain these ideas should be charged with crimes against humanity

Agree – – why do people, when bored or wish to raise their profile, write about LD – – – – just giving corrupt and power hungry rulers ideas – hoping to then revert with “told you so” or “I warned you”.
Very few SA have had vaccine.
SA not in severe lockdown for a long time.
Yet, numbers are falling – infections and deaths.
Does that not tell you something??

I hope someone is taking names of these cretins that are advocating lockdowns. These apparatchiks are knowingly enabling gross human rights abuses to line their own pockets at the expense of the ordinary guy. Not everyone can swan around Stellies on full pay during these lockdowns.

Lockdowns are about saving lives. You can’t just put the economy and money above saving lives.

I’ve lost patience with your idiotic point of view. You are a bunch of narcissistic self-absorbed liars. You want to put the whole population under house arrest for a illness that has a mortality a very similar mortality to the flu! But my 12yr old is losing the best years of her life, unable to do school sport or go on camps and just be a normal carefree child, and it’s due to people like you and Welte. I am gatvol of you lot.
And, Welte knows full well that the statistics of countries and counties that did not lock down are similar and in some cases better with regards to the disease, obviously economically they are way ahed, and the full economic impact of these nonsense lockdowns has not been felt yet.

Please explain to me what the point of a hard lockdown is in our country? How do you lock-down a township and prevent community spread? How do you prevent spread when the taxi industry refused any restrictions on capacity and threatened the government into allowing them to continue running at 100% capacity (which in normal countries would be 150% capacity of a vehicle that size). What is the point of the rest of the country locking down if our demographic conditions don’t allow for any real lockdown of >75% of the population? Your comment reads like a privileged ‘laptop-class’ elite that enjoys staying home. If you really want to ‘save’ and improve lives in the most vulnerable sectors of society, what we need is jobs, and income. Poverty is a much much greater threat in SA than a virus that basically only affects the old, obese and diabetic. You are welcome to continue hiding under your couch for another year. As for the rest of us, we have a country to save.

Yes you can when there is more money available then more resources become available to save lives. If we have and had all the resources then as SA we could have tackled covid pre – post and recovery much better. Look at the EU even US with all their chaos normality is returning slowly but surely. Do you think we are animals to be in lockdown for life. Our taxes are eroded, our human rights violated directly and indirectly as a daily struggle whether you gave or have not it doesn’t matter. It’s the basic principle and right to live. If that basic principle is not valued by our Government then sorry they are acting like slave masters.

It appears that the leadership( if that term can seriously be applied to that inept gang) of the WHO has a different view.

They see herd immunity from vaccinations- not recovered infections- but alas our highly capable health minister sold our vaccines to the rest of Africa.(probably to pay for Jamnadas new A 350s-with anti stall features to cater for incapable pilots)

No outrage, no outcry-just poor acceptance like the folk accepted, Mobuto, Verwoerd, Mad Bob, Qaddafi and various other dictators who looked after themselves rather than the people of the country.

I’ve aid this all along and still maintain.

The fact that so many people have the virus without ANY (or at least noticeable) symptoms , means that the unknown cases are FAR more than we think.

That means the real death rate is FAR lower.

Lockdowns are nonsensical. I can’t believe this is still being debated

The ANC and co are a bunch of degenerates, only people like them rule with an iron fist, totally autocratic, totalitarian and fascist. That’s the order of the day not a single glimmer of hope

Lockdowns are crimes against humanity. If you have not realised this by now, you are either ignorant beyond belief, or malevolent beyoned salvation.

Lockdowns are crimes against humanity.
If you don’t agree you are either ignorant beyond belief, or malevolent beyond salvation.

A suitable answer to a possible lockdown, can be mixed from a scene out of Top Gun:

“The end(lockdown) is inevitable Maverick”. Mask-free life is headed for extinction’

“May be so, sir. But NOT TODAY”

😉

Lockdowns of the entire populace has NEVER been done in history – even with Europe’s Black Plague. It was the most ill-conceived, idiotic idea and really only can be justified if the WHO is playing by the WEF Klaus Schwab’s playbook of the GREAT RESET. Willfully destroying economies to “Build Back Better”. Go to the WEF’s site and see for yourself the crazy communistic ideologies they are promulgating – “you will own nothing and be happy”, “universal basic income”, “Centralized World Govts”, “Digital Passports/Currencies” etc. The Climate and Over-population Alarmists are going all in and have Big Tech, WEF, IMF all pushing their Agenda… My fear is Totalitarian Govts are here to stay for the foreseeable future and will increasingly infringe upon your basic rights. Govts/”Nefarious Leaders” will never let a good crisis go to waste and they have sunk their teeth firmly into this one. Prepare for the West pressuring us minion countries to go Green, introduce population controls (vaccines could be helping with this one) and pushing us to use digital passports (careful what you google search or tweet). Sure I will be labeled “Conspiracy Theorist” although ask yourself – are Governments really that stupid.

That’s when I give them the middle finger and leave SA, I don’t want to be kart of a sh….t…l like Trump said it. Because I am not going to due trying for a better future elsewhere.

End of comments.

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