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What WHO says about lockdown measures

by Cédric Ayisa - November 13, 2020   5940 Views   5 min
What WHO says about lockdown measures


WHO backed down on its position on lockdowns


Inaccurate (no factual basis; unacceptable margin of error)

In an article dated 12 October 2020, the British tabloid Daily Express reported that the World Health Organization (WHO) has changed its stance on lockdown measures. This statement is inaccurate.

During an interview with The Spectator journal, the World Health Organization's Special Envoy on COVID-19, Dr. David Nabarro, called on world leaders to "stop using lockdown as the primary method of control". He went on to say that "lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer."

Many people online, including politicians and media outlets began to perceive Dr. Nabarro's comments as a shift in WHO's position on lockdowns. Some even saw it as a way for the Organization to admit that lockdowns were dangerous. In reality however, this is not the case.

What WHO says

The idea behind lockdowns is to reduce the reproduction rate (or R) of the virus, i.e. to reduce the number of people that each confirmed case goes on to infect. It is mainly about keeping R below 1 (R<1) and flattening the curve. As early as March 2020, WHO recognized that lockdowns were just "buying time and reducing the pressure on health systems...But on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics", which also reflects Dr. Nabarro's initial comments.

The Director of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, asked countries to use this time to "enable the more precise and targeted measures that are needed to stop transmission and save lives". He outlined six steps that any country can take, regardless of its size or scenario, to fight the virus:

  • Expand, train & deploy health care & public health workforce
  • Implement a system to find every suspected case at community level
  • Ramp up the production, capacity & availability of testing
  • Identify, adapt and equip facilities that will be used to treat & isolate patients
  • Develop a clear plan & process to quarantine contacts
  • Refocus the whole of government on suppressing & controlling

Although WHO recognizes the effectiveness of lockdowns, it believes that they can be problematic if they are used in the long term or as a country's primary measure: "Shutdowns and lockdowns can slow COVID-19 transmission by limiting contact between people...However, these measures can have a profound negative impact on individuals, communities, and societies by bringing social and economic life to a near stop," said WHO in a guidance document in April 2020.

WHO maintained its position on these measures in May, when it defined certain criteria to be considered before lifting lockdowns, then in June, and in its latest update in November 2020. This leads us to conclude that the Daily Express journal's remarks on the WHO recommendations are inaccurate.

A matter of context and interpretation?

Lockdowns have remained a controversial topic since the beginning of the pandemic.

Public health and leadership authorities make decisions as knowledge about the virus evolves and as the situation on the ground develops. But when decisions are released to the public and the media, interpretations may vary from one person or context to another, mostly due to lack of understanding of public health and epidemiology and, in some cases, political motivation.

This was once again observed after Dr. Nabarro's comments. U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter that WHO had proven him right: "The World Health Organization just admitted that I was right. Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. Open up your states, Democrat governors. Open up New York. A long battle, but they finally did the right thing! "

In response, WHO reaffirmed: "It isn't one measure alone - all of the existing measures need to be used together. DO IT ALL!...It works". The organization went on to say, "The reason we keep saying that it works is because we've seen this happen, we have seen countries bring these COVID-19 outbreaks under control by implementing these measures."

This is the case of China, which has been very quick to make efforts to set up surveillance and screening systems. It strictly and extensively confined its populations in the early stages of the pandemic, despite criticism of human rights violations. Out of a population of 1.4 billion people, as of November 12, 2020, China had recorded only 4,634 deaths due to COVID-19.

In Canada, it is the provincial or local approach that prevails. Local authorities decide what steps to take based on the available data. They continue testing while deciding how to integrate the measures and verify their effectiveness in adjusting restrictions to limit the spread of the virus. On July 31st 2020, the federal government launched COVID Alert, a tracking application to better identify cases and quickly control any possible increase in cases. The application has since been downloaded more than 5 million times as of publication date of this article.

The word "lockdown" has been named as the word of the year 2020 by the Collins Dictionary, after a sharp increase in its use during the pandemic

Some negative impacts of lockdowns

WHO notes that although lockdown measures are unsustainable, they are sometimes necessary to effectively control the virus and avoid overwhelming health systems. It also points out that "because of their severe economic, social & broader health impacts, lockdowns need to be limited in duration". WHO also explains that lockdowns "disproportionately affect disadvantaged groups, including people in poverty, migrants, internally displaced people and refugees, who most often live in overcrowded and under resourced settings, and depend on daily labour for subsistence."

In addition, among children and adolescents, studies show that as a result of lockdowns, children are more agitated, have sleep disorders, nightmares, lack of appetite, inattentiveness, and significant separation problems. The long-term closure of schools and activity centers creates loneliness, anxiety and slower learning abilities in children and adolescents. Poor children and youth are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

COVID-19 precautions

  • Physical distancing
  • Cleaning hands
  • Wear A Mask when physical distancing not possible
  • Cough & sneeze safely away from others
  • Avoid crowds
  • Keep windows & doors open when you can’t meet friends and family outside

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The Spectator

Twitter – WHO

World Health Organization (WHO)

Collins Dictionary

Twitter – Donald Trump

Johns Hopkins

Human Rights Watch

National Center for Biotechnology Information

Government of Canada

Public Health Agency of Canada


Daily Express

WHO backed down on its position on lockdowns


Inaccurate (no factual basis; unacceptable margin of error)

 November 13, 2020


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