COVID-19: How effective are nationwide lockdowns?


Outcomes may depend on the severity of the lockdown measures enacted, which measures are taken, or the level of adherence of a society.


As Quebec ponders enforcing stricter lockdown measures and imposing a curfew to stem its rising case count and protect its health care system, the science on the efficacy and feasibility of lockdown methods to curb the coronavirus is still divided. Outcomes may depend on the severity of the lockdown measures enacted, which measures are taken, or the level of adherence of a society. 

In an overview of the research on the effectiveness of thousands of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) used worldwide to curtail the spread of SARS-CoV-2, researchers at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna found that using a range of different measures tailored to a specific area can be more effective and less costly than instituting national lockdowns. Among the most effective government interventions for limiting the spread of the coronavirus included curfews and closing or restricting places where people gather for a prolonged period of time, particularly schools.

“This includes small gathering cancellations (closures of shops, restaurants, gatherings of 50 persons or fewer, mandatory home working and so on) and closure of educational institutions,” wrote the authors of the report. Recent studies have indicated that school closures in the United States “have been found to reduce COVID-19 incidence and mortality by about 60 per cent.” 

While such measures may be effective at flattening a COVID-19 curve, they are not without negative consequences, researchers noted, including stresses on school children, increases in domestic violence, and economic downturns.


Several countries have attempted partial or nearly complete lockdowns, with varied success. Here are a few examples.


New Zealand

Facing a rapid increase in cases and realizing it did not have the capacity for sufficient testing and contact tracing, New Zealand instituted a country-wide lockdown in late March. Its goal was total elimination of the disease. At that point, New Zealand had only 102 cases and no deaths.


It closed its borders to almost all non-residents. All but essential businesses and services were shut down, and residents were told to stay home. After five weeks, numbers started to drop rapidly, and after seven weeks of the national stay-at home order, the country of five million registered its last known case of COVID-19. By June 8, the government declared the pandemic over.


“Public life,” noted researchers at the country’s University of Otago in early August, “has returned to near normal.” Its position as an island nation with a relatively small population has helped, as did strong leadership from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.


A new outbreak in mid-August required a second six-week lockdown in the city of Auckland. But much of New Zealand’s economy has shown a rapid recovery thanks to government stimulus spending that has led to consumer spending. To date, New Zealand has had 2,186 cases and 25 deaths. 


Israel initiated its third nationwide lockdown two days after Christmas, two months after its last one ended. It was scheduled to run for at least two weeks.


Residents were not allowed to travel more than a kilometre from their homes except for essential work or education activities, and were not allowed to visit other people’s houses. Most retail services were suspended, and only delivery services were allowed. Schools remained open up to Grade 12, as did daycares. Businesses were allowed up to 50 per cent capacity. Gatherings were restricted to 10 people indoors and 20 outdoors. Solitary exercise was allowed, with no limits on distance. Israel’s leaders said this would be the last lockdown thanks to a rapid deployment of vaccines.


Critics said the measures didn’t go far enough. 

On Tuesday, Israel announced it would have to impose even stricter lockdown measures after the country of 9 million, similar to the population of Quebec, announced more than 8,000 cases in 24 hours. For the next two weeks, starting Thursday, it will close all schools and non-essential businesses, and is limiting gatherings to five indoors and 10 outdoors.


Israel has initiated the world’s fastest vaccination program, already reaching 14 per cent of its population with one dose. Canada, by comparison has vaccinated 0.3 per cent of its citizens, and the U.S. is at 1.38 per cent, according to the Our World in Data world vaccination tracker run by University of Oxford.


Israel’s relatively small population and a well run nationalized health care system that has electronic medical files on all citizens is being credited in part for its rapid vaccine rollout. 


France started its second lockdown in late October as the country was suffering more than 30,000 cases a day. A curfew was imposed on two-thirds of its 67 million residents, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., and non-essential businesses like bars and restaurants were forced to close, but schools remained open.


In December, as cases dropped to as low as 3,000 a day, the government eased restrictions for the Christmas holidays, while maintaining curfews and closures of cafés and restaurants. Now cases are back at 20,000 a day and health authorities fear they are set to soar because of holiday gatherings. The government has imposed stricter curfews starting at 6 p.m. in 15 areas of the country.


Despite the restrictions, more than 2,500 partiers gathered at a massive rave in Brittany that police had trouble dismantling, one of several New Year’s Eve bashes discovered. 

France has recorded more than 66,000 COVID-19 fatalities to date and 2.7 million cases, the sixth-highest case count in the world.