As lockdowns spread across the US, the UK and other countries, early lessons on how effective they’ll be against the new coronavirus are coming from abroad.
Even as China moves to lift a quarantine on the original virus epicenter of Wuhan after stanching the outbreak, India and much of Europe are locking down. Comparisons are tricky because of differences in the outbreak severity, testing regimes and health-care systems in each country.
Countries like South Korea have countered the pandemic successfully without large-scale quarantines, relying more on tools like testing and
contact tracing. Even so, the numbers are cause for optimism that a global clampdown on public life is helping to slow the spread of the virus. The question is how long the measures will need to last to ensure the outbreak doesn’t surge again.
Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, compared social distancing with putting the brakes on a car that’s speeding down a hill.
“If you let your foot off the brake, which is letting up on interventions, then gravity will start to accelerate the car again,” he said. “As long as there are any cases still around, you will start to speed up and get more cases.”
New cases of the virus transmitting within the country dropped to zero about eight weeks after the government’s massive quarantine of some 60 million people in Hubei province. Now, with the lockdown on the virus’s epicenter in Wuhan due to be lifted on April 8, countries around the world will be watching closely to see whether infections surge again.
As new infections ease, the world’s industrial giant is getting back to work. China’s relatively rapid rebound may be little comfort to other afflicted countries, however, since the outbreak was relatively concentrated in the Hubei region, making it easier to restart factories elsewhere.
In South Korea, aggressive testing and a nationwide manhunt for people with whom Covid-19 patients came into contact succeeded in slowing its spread without a blanket lockdown. Health authorities tracked down and tested some 212,000 members of a religious sect after confirming that a member of the group had tested positive with the virus in February.
Italian officials cautiously announced a dip in the daily recorded number of deaths on Monday, about two weeks into a nationwide lockdown. A flood of people had left the hardest-hit areas in the industrial north early on, potentially bringing the virus with them. Officials there have been quick to say that just because the measures seem to be having some success doesn’t mean they should be loosened anytime soon. Those concerns were underlined when virus deaths surged again Tuesday.
The US has taken a piecemeal approach to fighting the virus, ranging from near-total lockdown in states including Ohio, New York and California to vaguer advice to avoid big crowds and work from home. Infections are speeding up, and the country could become the new epicenter of the outbreak, said Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization.