Recently in an interview a Doctor from the World Health Organisation said that the WHO doesn't support lockdowns:

“We in the World Health Organisation do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus,” Dr Nabarro told The Spectator. “The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it.” Dr Nabarro’s main criticism of lockdowns involved the global impact, explaining how poorer economies that had been indirectly affected.

Up until this point I'd been under the impression that the WHO was the primary reasons why a lot of governments have been enforcing strict travel restrictions and lockdowns - for context when I say lockdown I'm thinking of a New Zealand or Victoria, Australia style lockdown. This has been reported as the "WHO backflips on virus stance by condemning lockdowns". After some Googling I've been unable to find anytime where the WHO actually advocated lockdowns or travel restrictions - in fact everything seems to consistently be the opposite.

It seems like a lot of other people across the political spectrum were under the same wrong understanding as me. This lead me to wondering where the reasoning came from for some governments to institute lockdowns and travel restrictions.

While allowing for the data to change as scientists and medical professionals gathered more informations, did all governments even have access the same information? There are some oddities with this, for example: The UK decided to keep things relaxed with and then changed to strict lockdowns (though without strict travel controls if I understand it right). Australia went into a strict lockdown federally,then the states have gradually lifted some restrictions as they see fit. New Zealand went full on early, implemented regional travel restrictions and strict border controls. The USA starting with a strict stance, then backtracking (at least at a federal level) to relax restrictions - some states opted to implement similar restrictions.

It seems like there's some semblance of consistency between these examples giving the (maybe false) impression that they were working from the same set of information, but also a lot of differences. If it wasn't a single authority like the World Health Organisation, how did all of these countries (and many others) arrive at very similar, but different conclusions about what actions to take. Was it just collaboration between the various government experts, with some disagreements leading to slightly different outcomes, but completely different outcomes for countries not involved in the collaboration?

  • 1
    Always been troubled by the phrase "lockdown", as in did the US ever lockdown? In other words, what does lockdown mean. (does it mean no activity or does it mean restricted activity? – BobE Oct 12 at 3:10
  • The US isn't really the first place I'm thinking of - more New Zealand and Australia. Lockdown means restrictions on leaving your house (not at all, or only for specific purposes such as buying food, or medical reasons), not allowed to travel more than a certain distance from your house, needing an exemption from the government in order to attend work, or operate your business. Extra powers given to police to enforce these kinds of laws - as the most extreme in New Zealand police were granted the powers to enter private property to make sure only residents were in the building, no visitors. – Brett Oct 12 at 3:18

It seems like there's some semblence of consistency between these examples giving the (maybe false) impression that they were working from the same set of information, but also a lot of differences. If it wasn't a single authority like the World Health Organisation, how did all of these countries (and many others) arrive at very similar, but different conclusions about what actions to take. Was it just collaboration between the various government experts, with some disagreements leading to slightly different outcomes, but completely different outcomes for countries not involved in the collaboration?

This is happening because the underlying science is the same, and since science is fundamentally reproducible, different countries will come to the same conclusions even if they approach the problem independently. To see this first one needs to understand how COVID models work:


The cost of shuttering large parts of the economy is relatively easy for Rebelo and his collaborators, Northwestern University economist Martin Eichenbaum and Mathias Trabandt of the Free University of Berlin, to translate into money, the currency of economics. ­­On the economic side, their model calculates how the disease and government policies would influence how much people work and buy.

But the dollars and cents of a virus are less intuitive. Rebelo uses a modified version of what’s known as an SIR model, an acronym for categories of people: susceptible, infected, and recovered. It simulates how a disease moves through a population based on how infectious and lethal it is, and how much contact people have with each other. To put a price on the results, Rebelo takes the number of predicted deaths and calculates an economic estimate of the value of the lost lives. The approach is similar to the price that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency used to gauge the costs and benefits of environmental regulations: $9.5 million per life.

His initial modeling efforts showed that even a yearlong lockdown makes economic sense, to allow time for a vaccine to be developed. The pause would shrink the economy by approximately 22%—a cost of $4.2 trillion. By comparison, the model shows that without containment measures, the economy would contract by about 7% over that year—but as many as 500,000 additional lives would be lost, which translates into a loss of roughly $6.1 trillion.

Note the model depends on factors such as how infectious and lethal the disease is, how much contact people have with each other, and how the disease and government policies influence how much people work and buy. The infectiousness and lethality of the disease is almost the same worldwide (there are different strains of COVID, but it's still the same virus). The amount of contact people have with each other is a key variable, and from the point of view of containing the disease it's always better to have less contact. This is intuitively obvious, and it shouldn't be surprising that all governments arrive at the same conclusion and therefore implement the same solution.

Note Dr. Nabarro's criticism of lockdowns doesn't actually affect the underlying science. He didn't criticize it because they are ineffective, he criticized it because of outsize impact on poorer economies. This kind of criticism is a judgment call, not a scientific objection, and it's reasonable to expect scientists to split on this recommendation.

| improve this answer | |
  • Thanks, I do understand this - as you say it's common sense. I'm trying to understand this more at a political level though - in terms of the cost benefit analysis that every senior leader would have done in deciding how strict to make their response. I've updated the question to try clarify what I'm asking. – Brett Oct 12 at 3:09
  • Changed answer. – Allure Oct 12 at 3:21
  • @Brett perhaps you ought to ask exactly that: What, if any, cost-benefit analysis was performed by leaders to decide the level of restrictions. (as an example, permitting some 40,000 persons to enter the US from China after Jan 31 - where did hat fall on the C/B analysis - or was it was even considered) – BobE Oct 12 at 3:22
  • I see that I am caught in the edit/clarification process with you and Brett, so I'll butt out till morning. Rebelo is a worthy citation, however, I sense that Brett is intending to question if any leaders had done any pre-pandemic analysis (such as we US have been lead to believe that DOD has preplanned all contingencies) – BobE Oct 12 at 3:37
  • 1
    @Brett if you take out a single authority then they'd probably get to the same conclusion by doing the calculations themselves? – user253751 Oct 12 at 14:53

This outbreak isn't particularly the first time this question has been asked. See numerous papers available through the US CDC on whether or not there was anything that could have been done in this respect regarding the Spanish flu which killed an enormous amount of people globally all the while we were almost all suffering a world war. By 1918 were weird in the bubonic plague doctor mask era. We had at least a basic understanding of infectious disease spread.

These things seem to typically come to a few pillars based on the actions we have seen globally in our latest pandemic.

Career impact on leading politicians. They will be blamed for the deaths or will be blamed for the consequences of a lock down. Neither outcome works well for a politician but dead people make for an insanely effectively political attack against them while attempting to retain office.

Ignorance. Lets never forget almost no politician, the person in power to make these decision is a doctor. In the US we have Rand Paul as possibly the only current federal level politician that is an actual physician. This is a common trend basically everywhere. Most are either business professionals or tied to law if you broke them down at least in western democracies. Not knowing what you don't know can be dangerous and lead to you being mislead or manipulated for the ends of another. Plus there can be a degree of bullheadedness that leads to rejecting expert advice as we saw in the US when Trump enacted the travel ban against the advice of his experts. His experts admitted they were wrong later but what if they were right? If they were or won't will ultimately be decided by history but at the moment they think they were wrong.

Power. Some nations have different power structures and have broad authorities that they don't have in others. For instance the structures for Trump to have done differently in the US was heavily restricted by our 10th amendment giving the states a great deal of autonomy. Some other countries don't have that which is why, if you browse video sites, you see egregious acts such as literally welding people into their homes, being dragged away, arrested, and other acts. The pretty atrocious behavior has happened captured on video in the US as well but largely at the direction of local governments. There have been a number of political officials which have simply seen it as an excuse to expand or abuse power. Governor Whitmer is an example. She has lost in the courts, her executive officials refuse to enact her choices regarding lock downs, has legitimately faced rulings in the state legislature, is facing a recall vote to remove her from office by force, people have planned to forcibly arrest her and put her on a tribunal for abuse of power, but she insists her rules still exist. As history shows...some people just are hungry for power.

Cost vs. Reward. A lock down can destroy an economy. We have already seen this happen in this event. What's it look like if everyone loses their job, starves, or else. Part of this ties into the previous point. China for instance due to both the pandemic but also historic flooding could face mass starvation they haven't seen since Mao was in power. Much of the world receives food aid from nations like the US and the larger EU countries not to mention their own impoverished populations which due to supply chain disruption could face mass starvation. We have seen record level food bank requests for aid in the US. Imagine what a shutdown could do in a less prosperous nation. Leaders have to take that into account. In some cases the cost could literally be their head. In the reward column they could either financially benefit or seem like a strong leader in incredibly hard times. The financial benefits could be something like what is suspected here in the fact that people are facing extremely devalued properties in population centers others can generate wealth through then purchasing them.

I doubt there is some cabal of people making this decision. There certainly is strong communications with allied leaders in various political blocks but a lot of this will, as history will likely show, a combination of ignorance, greed, seeking power, or some combination.

Further reading from the Spanish flu (ill named by some as it also likely came from China) that is pertinent to the conversation..


As civilian infection rates climbed day by day, Krusen refused to cancel the upcoming Liberty Loan parade scheduled for September 28. Barry writes that infectious disease experts warned Krusen that the parade, which was expected to attract several hundred thousand Philadelphians, would be “a ready-made inflammable mass for a conflagration.”

Krusen insisted that the parade must go on, since it would raise millions of dollars in war bonds, and he played down the danger of spreading the disease.


The disease spread like wildfire in crowded troop transports and munitions factories, and on buses and trains, according to a 1919 report by Sir Arthur Newsholme for the Royal Society of Medicine.

But a "memorandum for public use" he had written in July 1918, that advised people to stay at home if they were sick and to avoid large gatherings, was buried by the government.

Sir Arthur argued that many lives could have been saved if these rules had been followed, but he added: "There are national circumstances in which the major duty is to 'carry on', even when risk to health and life is involved."

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Your link China for instance dates back to March 16th, does not have the word "Mao" in it and generally doesn't talk about mass starvation. In any case, it's a 7 month old news item, at the very beginning of this crisis. If that's representative of the type of spin you put on your sources, I have my doubts about evenhandedness of the rest of your claims. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Oct 13 at 17:52

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .