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Opinion Lock down, but don’t shut down

A woman waits for a bus Wednesday in New Rochelle, N.Y., where the governor has declared a “containment zone.” (Mike Segar/Reuters)

WHEN AUTHORITIES imposed a quarantine on the sprawling Monrovia, Liberia, slum of West Point in 2014 in an effort to stem the Ebola epidemic, people escaped by sneaking through abandoned buildings or bribing soldiers. For some public health experts, the failed containment offered a lesson in what not to do. But in light of China’s draconian sealing-off of Wuhan to fight the novel coronavirus, Italy’s national lockdown and restrictions imposed in New Rochelle, N.Y., it is worth considering anew the merits of physical separation to fight a spreading respiratory disease.

We are all vulnerable to the coronavirus, since there are no vaccines or therapies or antibodies to protect us. The virus can spread in a cough, so keeping people apart makes good sense. But dictating how and where individuals can move about is difficult for governments, especially in democracies.

The latest updates on the coronavirus

China gets no praise for its coverup of the first covid-19 illnesses in Wuhan in December, which allowed the virus to spread. But in late January, as cases were rising, China imposed harsh containment measures. This belated action, and a clear message that fighting the epidemic was a national priority, seems to have slowed the virus’s spread in Wuhan and beyond. It is not easy to separate precisely what worked, but some credit must go to ending large gatherings, closing businesses, encouraging people to stay at home, closing schools and demanding people change their behavior. Of course, some of China’s methods — including the pop-up hospitals and mass mobilizations — may be unique to its authoritarian system and not possible elsewhere.

Italy, with a sizable elderly population especially at risk, at first responded by closing off 11 small towns in the north. But the virus had apparently already escaped the region, and a surge in respiratory cases overwhelmed the Lombardy hospital system. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced on Monday restriction of movement on an unprecedented scale, essentially locking down the entire country of 60 million people. It is too soon to know whether this will work, but here again there seems to be value in canceling large events, urging people to work from home where possible, closing schools and insisting on changes in daily habits. Mr. Conte properly declared, “I’m about to take a measure that we can summarize with ‘I’m staying home.’ Our habits need to change.”

In New Rochelle, a one-mile radius “containment area” was imposed this week by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), with a midpoint at a synagogue at the center of the state’s outbreak. Mr. Cuomo is sending in the National Guard and shutting schools, churches and synagogues. Again, that makes sense: The contagious nature of this virus demands physical separation.

But governments must be careful not to strangle a society while trying to save it. Restrictions should be based on evidence and logic, not fear. It isn’t clear how the restrictions on travel from Europe (except Britain) that President Trump announced Wednesday night meet that test; the virus is already here. And now that it is, people should be urged to avoid crowds, forgo concerts and cope with closed schools, but they should be allowed to shop for groceries and visit a doctor or their family. Normal goods and supplies need to flow. In other words, lock down but don’t shut down.

Read more:

Michele L. Norris: The coronavirus is testing us all

Henry M. Paulson Jr.: How the 2008 financial panic can help us face coronavirus

Nicholas Christakis: Compassion in the time of coronavirus

Jennifer Rubin: On coronavirus, Biden and Sanders act more presidential than Trump

Josh Rogin: South Korea shows that democracies can succeed against the coronavirus

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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