As the coronavirus outbreak rampages across Europe, Italy has imposed a nationwide lockdown in a desperate attempt to halt the spread of the deadly COVID-19 disease.
Unfortunately, research suggests that while banning travel and closing off cities may slow the virus down, the lockdown won’t halt the outbreak’s unstoppable march.
Not in Italy. And not when lockdowns finally arrive in the United States.
Beginning today, travel is severely restricted, while universities, cafés, and other public venues will be closed. The government will reassess the situation on April 3.
With almost 10,000 local cases and 463 deaths, Italy’s move appears reassuringly decisive. It’s a victory for people throughout the world who have been calling for governments to introduce more rigorous containment measures.
The lockdown in Italy will almost certainly reduce the number of new coronavirus cases in the days ahead.
But two critical questions will determine whether it’s an effective deterrent over the long term:
Answer incorrectly, and Italy may just be delaying the inevitable.
The lockdown will only succeed if Italians actually observe it. Early reports suggest people have already been violating the lockdown.
Unless that changes, there’s a substantial possibility that the coronavirus will continue to spread – leaving many Italians infected when the lockdown finally ends. Even if total active cases decline, a few infected people could be enough to start the contagion process all over again.
Research indicates that travel restrictions aren’t effective either.
Back in 2011, this peer-reviewed study examined travel restrictions in the context of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic – the “swine flu.” The researchers concluded that international travel restrictions had “limited value and feasibility.”
Worse still, they warned that they wouldn’t be effective to combat a “future pandemic event.”
Stricter regimes of travel reduction would have led to delays on the order of two weeks even in the optimistic case of early intervention. It is unlikely that given the ever-increasing mobility of people travel restrictions could be used effectively in a future pandemic event.
Other research supports this view.
Our simulations demonstrate that, in a highly mobile population, restricting travel after an outbreak is detected is likely to delay slightly the time course of the outbreak without impacting the eventual number ill.
Another 2006 study found that a travel restriction imposed after 9/11 only “delayed and prolonged” the spread of influenza during the subsequent flu season.
In other words, Italy’s lockdown is most likely only delaying the inevitable. And other governments won’t have any more success when they introduce similar lockdowns next.
This shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Back in January, Chinese virologist Yi Guan said that the window of opportunity for containing the coronavirus had already been missed.
It’s hard to shake the uncomfortable feeling that he was right.
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