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A lone jogger run on a partially empty 7th Avenue, resulting from citywide restrictions calling for people to stay indoors and maintain social distancing in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 on March 28, in New York. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: With ‘social distancing’ and self-quarantine fast emerging as some sort of benchmarks for responsible living and aware citizenry, one term that has probably been used with a greater frequency over the last few weeks than perhaps the number of times an average human being blinks his or her eyes during a 24-hour time span is ‘Lockdown’!

For a pandemic that has forced half the world’s population into isolation from an active social and professional life, the cost in sheer economic terms will be humongous. And it will probably take several months, or maybe years perhaps, to fathom the full import of this crisis that is unparalleled in human history.

To put things in perspective, during the Second World War, the global population was around 2.3 billion. In fact, the two largest socio-political calamities in human history — the two World Wars – saw a total of 135 million people actively involved in them.

Now imagine this: As you read this article, there are roughly 3.9 billion people around the globe who have not stepped out of their houses for a morning jog around the neighbourhood park or for an evening cup of coffee or tea at their nearest cafeterias. And it’s been like this for the past two weeks or so for most of those 3.9 billion.

The only other global calamity that would come somewhere close to the current scenario is the 1918-19 Spanish Flu, which had infected one-third of the global population at that point in time — by factoring in present-day parameters, those numbers would be pegged around 500 million.

As the number of coronavirus-infected people have steadily gone up since last December, more and more countries around the world have resorted to ‘lockdown’ as a potent weapon to counter the contagion.

What is the origin of the term ‘lockdown’?

According to the Macmillan Dictionary, the term ‘lockdown’ has been derived from two separate English terms – ‘lock’, from the Old English term ‘loc’, meaning a devise or tool for fastening something; and ‘down’, from the Middle English ‘doun’. The term ‘lockdown’ has been in use in English since the late 19th century – a noun formed from its two constituent phrasal verbs.

A Kolkata family in lockdown during the current COVID-19 crisis. Image Credit: PTI

What does ‘lockdown’ mean?

The term typically refers to the invocation of an emergency protocol, whereby, movement of people, goods and services -- and even that of information, in certain cases – is restricted within a specified area. This ‘area’ can be as small as a particular building in a neighbourhood – say, for instance, what had happened in the immediate aftermath of some of the incidents of mass shootings in certain schools in the United States – or it can be spread over an area as large as the land mass of India spread over 3.287 million square kilometres, with a population of 1.3 billion. So lockdown is a scenario, whereby free movement is restricted, which can either be for a specified period or can even be indefinite, depending upon the nature of the emergency.

Major lockdowns in past two decades
September, 2001: In the wake of the 9/11 terror strikes on the United States, there was a three-day lockdown of American civilian airspace – something unprecedented in the history of America.

December, 2005: The New South Wales Police Force declared a lockdown of Sutherland Shire and the adjoining beaches in New South Wales to control race riots.

April, 2013: The city of Boston was completely locked down and even public transportation system was brought to a standstill, when police went on a manhunt for the two suspected terrorists who had carried out the Boston Marathon bombing.

November, 2015: Brussels was locked down for several days as security forces suspected the presence of those involved in the Paris terror attacks earlier.

January, 2020, onwards: First the Wuhan province in China, followed by practically the rest of the world in a prolonged phase of quarantine and lockdown to counter the coronavirus outbreak.
-Compiled by SKD

What are the different types of lockdowns?

Lockdowns are primarily of two variations: Preventive or Preemptive, and Emergency. A preventive lockdown is invoked when authorities or those responsible for law and order or any general administrative function anticipate an oncoming crisis situation and act in advance to minimise the threats emerging out of it. Preemptive lockdowns are mostly of shorter durations and are usually very localised in nature, covering only a very specific area that could turn out to be sensitive in the short term.

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Runners at the finishing point just as an explosion goes on in the US city of Boston during the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Image Credit: Agencies

An emergency lockdown, on the other hand, as the name indicates, happens without any prior notice and is decided upon keeping the scale of the crisis in mind. Almost all the countries that have gone into a lockdown over the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic have done so in the emergency mode.

When did lockdown become an effective security strategy tool?

While lockdown, as a term, has been in use in English since the late 19th century, its execution as a precaution against or as a response to an arising emergency situation gained popularity primarily in the United States in the late 1970s, in Southern California, in response to drive-by shootings or to counter street crimes occurring outside school buildings. Interestingly, the strategy of a lockdown was initiated primarily as a quick-response to external threats to a school building. But later on, the focus of this fire-fighting strategy was met with major revamp and rethink as its shortcomings became all too clear to counter threats from within a school building, where the shooter is present within the perimeter fencing or, in the worst-case scenario, inside a classroom.

Can lockdowns halt a pandemic?

Around mid-January, when Beijing announced it was locking down Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, in view of the fast-spreading novel coronavirus, it was the largest instance of a lockdown until then. Many had doubts about the viability of such a measure involving such a large population mass. According to the Guardian, about two months later, on March 19, when China reported its first day without a single positive case of a local transmission of the virus, the Wuhan lockdown’s efficacy was proved beyond doubt.

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A delivery vehicle passes a parcel to a man over barriers in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people.

Just two weeks later, India went a step ahead, announcing a countrywide lockdown for its 1.3 billion people – the biggest lockdown in human history. According to data available on www.covid19india.org, from a 39.92 per cent rise in positive cases between March 21 and 22, that is just before the March 24 lockdown, the figures came down to 5.31 per cent between March 27 and until 5pm (IST) on March 28. Though there was a reported uptick in that percentage late on Monday night, the very fact that India entered the second week of lockdown with still no definitive trace of a community transmission is a big plus in itself, given the size of its population.

After lockdown, what next?

Epidemiologists have warned time and again that a lockdown can serve as a fool-proof measure against disease transmission only when backed up by aggressive screening of not just symptomatic, but even asymptomatic persons. Here, country’s with limited financial resources and poor health infrastructure have a tight rope to walk. One the one hand aggressive tests are necessary; while on the other, there could be an acute shortage of medical kits to conduct those tests, which will most definitely call for some discretion in conducting those tests. Striking the right balance between effective quarantine and maximum possible screenings for the maximum numbers is the next big challenge to fight this contagion.