Sorry Italy, But Your Coronavirus Lockdown Will Likely Fail

Italy has entered a nationwide lockdown as it tries to stem the coronavirus, but research into previous pandemics suggests it won't work.
Posted in: HeadlinesOp-ed
March 10, 2020 4:13 PM UTC
  • Italy has imposed a nationwide lockdown intended to stop the coronavirus.
  • It may be difficult for Italy to enforce travel restrictions across the entire country.
  • Research into previous crises suggests that travel restrictions only delay the spread of viruses.

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.

Italy Takes Unprecedented Steps to Halt Outbreak’s Western Advance

Though much smaller in size than China’s historic quarantine, Italy is the first country to declare a comprehensive nationwide lockdown.

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.

Source: Twitter

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.

Source: Twitter

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:

  • Will the lockdown be properly enforced?
  • What happens after the lockdown ends?

Answer incorrectly, and Italy may just be delaying the inevitable.

Why Italy’s Lockdown Will Probably Fail

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.

One 2006 study of the H5N1 avian flu concluded:

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.

Did the Coronavirus Containment Window Already Close?

Lockdowns or not, the coronavirus containment window may have already closed. | Source: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

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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Simon Chandler @_simonchandler_

Simon Chandler is a journalist based in London, UK. He writes mostly about markets, and has bylines for Forbes, Wired, the Sun,, the Daily Dot, the New Internationalist, TechCrunch, the Verge, Lifewire, Cointelegraph, and VentureBeat, among others. He can be found on Twitter here:

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