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From the bubonic plague to 2021, why lockdowns look set to stay

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A year after the lockdown imposed in the Chinese city of Wuhan shocked the world, the tactic is turning out to be an enduring tool for quelling the coronavirus almost everywhere.

When the first large-scale lockdown in modern times was implemented in China on Jan. 23 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was then deemed unproven and unthinkable, particularly by democratic governments who balked at the implications for human rights violations of limiting citizens’ freedom of movement on such a huge scale.

Yet almost 12 months on, the U.K. is in the midst of its third nationwide lockdown as it battles a mutated strain of the coronavirus. In Australia, the recent discovery of one case in Brisbane prompted a three-day lockdown. And China, which is experiencing its biggest outbreak since the start of the pandemic with over 500 cases, locked down three cities surrounding Beijing this month.

“Prior to COVID-19 there was a strong global health discourse that argued against lockdowns and similar mass quarantines. This is but one area of thinking that the current pandemic has overturned,” said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong.

“As far as is possible, lockdowns are going to become part of the essential toolkit for governments to use in addressing the ongoing as well as future outbreaks,” he said.

The speed with which China locked down millions of people when the pandemic broke out marked the first time that the measure had been taken on such a massive scale in modern times.


Until last year, severe lockdowns were synonymous with the waves of bubonic plague that swept through Europe from the 14th century. Even during the Spanish Flu of the early 20th century, no lockdowns were centrally imposed. China did, however, impose three major lockdowns in recent history: during a bubonic plague outbreak in its northeast in 1901, and two short ones following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and another amid a bubonic plague outbreak in Gansu province in 2014.

Foreign countries who were taken aback at the Wuhan lockdown found themselves doing much the same just months later as the virus spread uncontrollably.

After an infectious disease reaches a certain number of people, lockdowns can’t be avoided because no other measure can stem spread, said Jiang Qingwu, a professor of epidemiology at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Though it’s clear that there remains a large gulf between what the Chinese government is able to impose on its citizens during a lockdown compared to democratic countries. Ever quick to declare what the government routinely refers to as “wartime” measures in response to relatively low numbers of infections, local authorities also ensured compliance by actions such as totally sealing off residential compounds. In some cases, people are not allowed to leave to get food, with deliveries arranged to them instead.


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