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Why countries are resorting to pandemic lockdowns again

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The lockdowns are back. On Thursday, Ireland is set to become the first country in Europe to impose a second national lockdown as cases of the novel coronavirus surge once again. “We’re making a preemptive strike against the virus, acting before it’s too late,” Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said as he announced the measures.

Ireland is not alone in moving toward drastic action, although the extent of measures varies. The Czech Republic, only months ago considered a rare pandemic success story, announced similar plans on Wednesday. Britain, France, Germany and Spain have set regional restrictions this month, prompting demands for nationwide action.

“We are going to a partial lockdown. That hurts, but it’s the only way,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at a news conference last week. He announced measures including the closure of bars and restaurants for at least a month.

No governments take these steps lightly. Even limited shutdowns have consequences. National lockdowns like the one seen in Ireland can take a brutal toll on the economy. When he announced the six-week lockdown Monday, Varadkar said that 150,000 people could lose their jobs and the cost to the economy could reach $1.78 billion.

The return of lockdowns highlights an uncomfortable reality: Despite significant medical advances in the treatment of covid-19 and an unprecedented race to find a vaccine to beat the virus, the only proven measures to stop its rampant spread as of yet are crude, perhaps draconian limits on human interaction.

The tactic is deeply unpopular in many places. As the economic turmoil of the spring and summer continues, lockdown is a dirty word for many governments. Officials in Sweden and Belgium emphasized that new restrictions, reported as lockdowns in the media, were recommendations, not rules.

“In the end, [a lockdown] is a failure of the recommendation of restricting people’s contacts,” Belgian state virologist Steven Van Gucht told the Brussels Times on Friday. “If that system fails, a lockdown is the only thing left.”

The return to lockdowns is a sign of desperation. After a summer during which many people allowed their guard to drop as the first wave of the pandemic seemed to recede, there has been a surge of new cases in many countries.

Ireland’s decision to reimpose its lockdown came as the country buckled under a second wave of coronavirus infections. In fact, its outbreak remains smaller than that of many of its neighbors in Europe: Belgium, the Netherlands and France are seeing some of fasting-growing outbreaks in the world, adjusted for population size.

The global surge appears to be hitting countries that successfully avoided the initial wave of cases in the spring. The Czech Republic has the fastest-growing outbreak in the world, according to a Washington Post analysis, after Prague residents held a “farewell” party for the virus over the summer.

A similar trend can be seen elsewhere in Europe, and in Latin America and the Middle East. “Countries that have avoided the first waves have no reason to be complacent,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Washington Post this week.

Although most new outbreaks do not appear to be leading to the same spike in deaths seen early in the pandemic, officials in many nations have good reason to fear that a sudden increase in hospitalizations, if one occurs, could lead to a large number of deaths that could otherwise have been prevented.

Some officials, such as Ireland’s Varadkar, have pointed out that the second wave of the 1918 flu pandemic left more dead than the first. That second wave hit hard in countries that had largely avoided the first wave, such as Austria-Hungary.

Lockdowns were one of the earliest tactics in the fight against the pandemic. China’s sudden move to place millions of people under strict lockdowns in January shocked foreign observers, but just two months later, researchers in London agreed that “drastic” restrictions on daily life may be a periodic necessity before the introduction of a vaccine.

Academic studies from Asia and Europe suggest that lockdowns can work. Even Israel’s somewhat halfhearted recent four-week lockdown seems to have tamped down the exponential growth in new cases seen just a month ago.

And yet opposition to lockdowns appears to have hardened. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has appeared repeatedly at anti-lockdown rallies. The Kremlin said Wednesday that there was no discussion of a second lockdown in Russia despite an alarming surge in coronavirus cases. President Trump recently repeated his own personal opposition to pandemic restrictions.

“Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself,” he tweeted Oct. 12. The United States has not yet had a full nationwide lockdown, in part due to the constraints of its federal system, but also due to persistent political opposition.

That is a grave mistake, some experts say. There is little evidence that the patchwork of locally administered restrictions in the United States has been a success. The United States has the highest death toll of any country on earth. Unlike other nations now seeing their second wave, Americans never got over their first. The country is now on its third peak.

Lockdown opponents point to Sweden, which avoided shutting down most businesses and schools this spring. But the Swedish government imposed stricter rules for mass gatherings than many U.S. states. Even with these in place, Sweden saw more deaths from covid-19 than many of its neighbors. Some modelers suggest that the country could have saved thousands of lives with a full lockdown.

But supporters of the tactic may overestimate its utility as well. Lockdowns helped countries including China and South Korea fight the virus, but sophisticated surveillance is what has stopped subsequent outbreaks.

Lockdowns remain a crude weapon, but nine months into the pandemic, the move remains the best some nations have.

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