Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started last January, the term “lockdown” has been used extensively by the international media in their daily reports about the outbreak. From the World Health Organization’s description of the original Wuhan outbreak through the current global pandemic, the term has been sensationalized in daily news reports so much that wide misperception has been formed among the public today. In light of the lingering misperceptions circulating within the world, there are three myths about COVID-19 lockdowns that need to be debunked in order to reduce mass dissent and prepare the wide public for life after COVID-19.
Myth 1: A Lockdown Is the Sole Effective Response to COVID-19
While the majority of governments around the world have resorted to lockdowns, lessons from South Korea, Singapore (before its focused lockdown), Hong Kong, and Taiwan show that there is another form of effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea, for instance, made remarkable progress in flattening the previously high epidemic curve within three weeks or so using its unusually intensive and comprehensive “test, trace, and treat” strategy (with wide public participation). That brought applause and admiration around the world for the Northeast Asian country. It is precisely due to such success that the South Korean testing kits are highly demanded by many countries around the world today.
In flattening its own epidemic curve for the past month, Singapore used an efficient and effective testing, detection, and quarantine regime. Harvard University’s team of scientists projected the city-state’s ability to detect imported COVID-19 cases as 2.8 times the global level. This “testing, detection, and quarantine” strategy was the strategy of choice for the Singapore government until it decided to implement a focused lockdown to break the COVID-19 transmission on the domestic front.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government also learned from the painful lesson of SARS in the early 2000s and initiated early interventions to prevent social gatherings. Hong Kong also used digital tracking as well as social distancing rules among the mass public. With the voluntary participation of its civic-conscious citizens, who feared the return of a SARS-like pandemic in Hong Kong, the special autonomous region has relatively fewer COVID-19 cases despite sitting at the frontline of the pandemic.
As for Taiwan, the combination of advanced preparations, a high level of transparency and voluntary individual responsibility has placed the island either in the headlines of various international media for the past month or so. Unlike Hong Kong, which imposed a limited lockdown, Taiwan has yet to implement such measures, and yet it has the lowest number of COVID-19 cases among the four “Asian Tigers.” For one thing, the long-term capacity-enhancement of Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control (CDC), which included talent development, improving bureaucratic efficiency, high utilization of technology, daily public communication, and constant rehearsals of epidemic response for the past 17 years, has made the CDC an extremely prepared institution in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, Taiwan’s early border control and mask rationing as well as its public’s individual responsibilities (mass mask-wearing and highly cooperative corporations) have made the island’s present success a challenging lesson to learn for many governments around the world.
Then again, the successful cases of these four Asian Tigers are reflective of their government’s high capabilities and public civic-consciousness, which are not found in many parts of the world. However, it does show that there is a group of territories that defied lockdowns early on, unlike many other countries that imposed such (relatively) drastic measures, sometimes before the outbreak even began. As such, a lockdown is definitely not the sole effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Myth 2: There Is Only a Single Form of Lockdown
Just as a lockdown is not the only effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is equally simplistic to conclude that there is only a single form of lockdown. As a matter of fact, many countries that are currently imposing lockdown measures are not following the exact tough measures used in the original lockdown in Hubei province. Even within China, during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, lockdowns could be divided into both soft and hard forms. Likewise, what we see around the world today is remarkably diverse from the lockdowns put in place in China about two months ago.
For instance, Singapore recently announced its own version of enhanced measures akin to a focused lockdown – meant to end human interactions in nonessential economic and social activities while at the same time, allowing essential services and key economic sectors (especially those in global supply chain) to continue operations. In addition to that, the populace at large are allowed to buy food, medicine, and groceries, exercise in parks, and even conduct social gatherings at home, with the conditions they do so only with family members and keep the a distance of 1 meter from each other.
Across Europe, the lockdown measures of different countries hinge on the question of whether there is a stay-at-home order as directed by the various governments. While Italy, Spain, Poland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Portugal, and France imposed stay-at-home orders for their citizens except for essential tasks, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden avoided such drastic measure and instead urged the public to exercise social distancing measures. On the other hand, the country with the most COVID-19 cases today, the United States, avoided issuing any national stay-at-home order but instead left it to the state governments to exercise their judgement. With the absence of a nationwide order by the Trump administration, the United States is an unusual case in which each state, and not the federal government, decides on any lockdown and what form will it take. As of now, the Trump administration has only recommended that Americans practice social distancing through April 30 and wear “non-medical cloth” face coverings (masks) while they are in public places.
Myth 3: Normal Life Will Return Immediately After the Lockdowns
This is the most misleading myth about COVID-19 lockdowns. At this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is plainly obvious that life after the lockdown will not be same as before. As highlighted by Singapore’s National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, the coronavirus will continue to subsist in the human population even after movement restrictions have been discontinued. Such fact was echoed by Canadian Health Minister Patty Hadju, who called the public to expect social distancing measures to last for months instead of weeks, as many were expecting
Similarly, the Malaysian health director-general, Noor Hisham Abdullah, made an even more explicit statement that the post-lockdown period will feature a new norm in which the social distancing rule is observed among the public. This included the ban on mass gatherings, which according to Hisham may continue for another six months or a year after the end of the movement control order (MCO), the Malaysian version of a soft lockdown. The similar tone of these three authoritative figures in their respective countries clearly tells us that the normal life we lived before the COVID-19 pandemic will not immediately return, even after lockdowns are lifted.
While “lockdown” is the simplest term to describe the current situation to the wider public, it is subject to wide misperception around the world. Instead of using the term “lockdown,” “social distancing” is more reflective of the list of movement restriction measures imposed by the majority of COVID-affected countries today. Not only will this discard the three lingering myths surrounding COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, it also helps the wider populace recognize the importance of social distancing in the post-lockdown period.
Karl Lee Chee Leong is Visiting Fellow at Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), National Chengchi University (NCCU) under the Taiwan Fellowship program sponsored by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan). He is concurrently a Ph.D. Candidate at the School of Arts and Social Sciences (SASS), Monash University (Malaysia Campus).
ANBOUND Research Center (Malaysia) is an independent think tank situated in Kuala Lumpur.