- America’s coronavirus caseload would have been much worse without restrictive social distancing measures, a new study says.
- Lockdown policies prevented 530 million infections in six countries alone, including 60 million COVID-19 cases in the US. Of those, just 4.8 million US cases would have been confirmed by a test.
- A separate study analyzed lockdowns measures in 11 European countries, concluding that some 3.1 million lives were saved in the process.
More than 7.21 million people were infected with the novel coronavirus, as of Tuesday morning. Over 410,000 of them died while fighting the infection, and 3.3 million people are still struggling with COVID-19. Some countries were able to beat the infection, and several others flattened the curve. SARS-CoV-2 hasn’t lost its contagiousness, and it’s infecting more people than ever as new outbreaks have intensified in recent weeks. But new research indicates that the lockdown measures that governments implemented over the past few months prevented the virus from spreading at even more alarming rates. One study estimates that some 530 million infections have been prevented by lockdowns and drastic social distancing measures, and that’s just in six countries. Lockdowns prevented 60 million extra cases in the United States alone, of which only 4.8 million would have been diagnosed via testing.
Researchers from the University of Berkley analyzed the coronavirus responses of six countries, including China, France, Italy, Iran, South Korea, and the US. They concluded that the health policies the governments implemented to prevent COVID-19 transmission were able to control the spread to a degree and prevent additional infections. “Without these policies employed, we would have lived through a very different April, and May,” Berkley director of the Global Policy Laboratory Solomon Hsiang told The Washington Post.
The researchers said the number of infections was doubling in these countries every 2 days before shutdowns. “The disease was spreading at a really extraordinary rate that is rare even among very infectious diseases,” he said. The response resulted in “saving more lives in a shorter period than ever before.”
The study took into account 1,717 interventions, looking at infection rates before and after the measures were implemented. The effects of actions like stay-at-home orders, school closings, and travel bans were analyzed. The researches concluded that some 62 million confirmed infections have been averted as a result, but the number of cases would have been much higher, up around 530 million across the six countries. That’s because not all people who are infected have access to tests, and many cases are asymptomatic.
Here’s what the caseload could have looked like, including confirmed COVID-19 cases and the total number of undiagnosed infections, had it not been for lockdown measures:
- China: 37 million confirmed out of 285 million extra infections
- France: 1.4 million confirmed out of 45 million extra infections
- Italy: 2.1 million confirmed out of 49 million extra infections
- Iran: 5 million confirmed out of 54 million extra infections
- South Korea: 11.5 million confirmed out of 38 million extra infections
- US: 4.8 million confirmed out of 60 million extra infections
That’s just for six countries. The overall number of potential infectious would be significantly higher once you factor in the rest of the world.
The Berkley scientists say that “societies around the world are weighing whether the health benefits of anti-contagion policies are worth their social and economic costs. Many of these costs are plainly seen; for example, business restrictions increase unemployment, and school closures impact educational outcomes.” But Hsiang added that the health benefits can’t be observed as easily because they include “infections that never occurred and deaths that did not happen.”
The Berkley study didn’t estimate how many lives these social distancing measures would have saved on top of preventing more than half a billion infections. But a similar study from the Imperial College London attempted to figure out how many deaths the shutdowns have prevented. They concluded that social distancing measures saved about 3.1 million lives in 11 European countries alone, including 500,000 lives saved in the UK. The study, available in Nature alongside the Berkley research, also says that infection rates dropped by an average of 82% after the lockdowns.
The warning is clear in both studies: the danger is still there, and recklessly easing restrictions could increase the virus’s ability to spread. “This is just the beginning of the epidemic: we’re very far from herd immunity,” Imperial College’s Samir Bhatt told The Post. “The risk of a second wave happening if all interventions and precautions are abandoned is very real.” Bhatt and his team wrote that their estimates imply “the populations in Europe are not close to herd immunity.” Only between 3% to 4% of people in the countries observed have been infected so far. Others have suggested that more than 60% of people in a community must be infected for obtaining herd immunity.
The Berkley study is available at this link, and here’s the Imperial College’s paper complete with graphs for the countries that were analyzed.