Italy Cadorna face masks lockdown ease railway
People wearing face masks arrive at the Cadorna railway station, as Italy begins a staged end to a nationwide lockdown due to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Milan, Italy May 4, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

  • 3 types of lockdowns defined
  • What it takes to move from lockdowns

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

According to a new study conducted by Imperial College London, the purpose of current lockdowns is to reduce reproduction of the virus — that is to say that the aim is to ensure that the number of persons who are infected by one person who has tested positive is kept at a minimum.

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 more than a month 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.

What does the term ‘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.

Hyderabad techie turns social worker amid lockdown in India
Hyderabad techie turns social worker amid lockdown in India Image Credit: Twitter

What are the different types of lockdowns?

Lockdowns are primarily of two variations: Preventive or Preemptive. There's a third one: Emergency.

  • Preventive

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

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.

  • Emergency lockdown

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 deterrence 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.

India lockdown
Youngster gets unique punishment for driving in India amidst coronavirus lockdown Image Credit: Twitter

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. 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.

The study conducted by Imperial College London shows that without any lockdown, United Kingdom and the United States would reach peak mortality in about three months. Meaning, that in about three months’ time, 81 per cent of the population of UK and US would be infected by coronavirus, with the death toll reaching 510,000 in UK and 2.2 million in the US.

In contrast, by isolating the confirmed and suspected cases and by ensuring some degree of social distancing and critical-care for the elderly and the most vulnerable, ‘the peak critical-care demand’ could be reduced by two-thirds in these two countries.

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 people. Here, countries with limited financial resources and poor health-care 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. Effective containment measures, followed by aggressive testing can help achieve what is known as ‘flattening the curve’ – reducing the number of positive cases.

Striking the right balance between quarantine measures and maximum possible screenings for the maximum numbers is the next big challenge to fight this contagion.