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Two separate scientific studies have put hard numbers to what is already apparent from global case counts and deaths: namely, that lockdowns were instrumental in slowing the transmission of the disease in many countries. Without them, the human cost of the pandemic would have been staggeringly higher by now.

Researchers behind both studies say their findings should be top of mind for decision-makers charting a path forward through the next stages of the pandemic, particularly before a vaccine becomes available and while the total number of people who have already been infected by the novel coronavirus make up, at most, a few per cent of the population.

“We would all love to be able to go back to normal life … but our results suggest that precautions remain necessary,” said Seth Flaxman, a mathematician at Imperial College London and lead author of one of the reports, which looked at measures taken in 11 European countries up to the beginning of May.

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The report concluded that those countries, by then, would have collectively experienced 3.1 million additional deaths because of COVID-19 had public-health measures, including lockdowns, not been in place. (Globally, the actual death toll from the disease stands at just more than 400,000.)

The study did not take into account how people might have altered their behaviour as the death toll mounted, nor the possibility that overcrowded hospitals would have increased the risk of death for many.

The second study, led by a team at the University of California, Berkeley, compared infection rates in the United States, China, France, Italy, Iran and South Korea before and after the implementation of a range of specific policies at local, regional and national scales up to early April.

DEATHS AVERTED BECAUSE OF

INTERVENTIONS

Deaths due to COVID-19 in 11 European countries

were used to model the spread of the disease.

Then the outcome was calculated if lockdowns and

related measures were not put in place.Results

show that deaths would have increased more

than tenfold to 1.3 million across all 11 countries.​​

Actual

deaths

Model based

on data

Model without

interventions

1,000,000

100,000

10,000

DEATHS

1,000

100

March 1

March 15

April 1

April 15

May 1

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIl

SOURCE: nature; Imperial College London

DEATHS AVERTED BECAUSE OF INTERVENTIONS

Deaths due to COVID-19 in 11 European countries were

used to model the spread of the disease. Then the

outcome was calculated if lockdowns and related

measures were not put in place. Results show that deaths

would have increased more than tenfold to 1.3 million

across all 11 countries.​​

Actual

deaths

Model based

on data

Model without

interventions

1,000,000

100,000

10,000

DEATHS

1,000

100

March 1

March 15

April 1

April 15

May 1

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: nature; Imperial College London

DEATHS AVERTED BECAUSE OF INTERVENTIONS

Deaths due to COVID-19 in 11 European countries were used to model the spread of the

disease. Then the outcome was calculated if lockdowns and related measures were not put

in place. Results show that deaths would have increased more than tenfold to 1.3 million

across all 11 countries.​​

Actual deaths

Model based on data

Model without interventions

1,000,000

100,000

DEATHS

10,000

1,000

100

March 1

March 15

April 1

April 15

May 1

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: nature; Imperial College London

Over all, they found the spread of the disease was slowed considerably in all six countries once the policies were in effect. The authors estimate that the countries’ actions prevented 62 million additional confirmed cases, which they said translated into 530 million fewer infections in total.

“Without these policies … we would have lived through a very different April and May that we believe is probably unimaginable,” said Solomon Hsiang, who led the Berkeley analysis. Both studies were published Monday in the journal Nature.

Although Canada was not considered in either study, the results roughly parallel what happened in mid-March when Canadians were told to cease travel, stay home from work and school, and generally keep their distance from one another. At that point, the number COVID-19 cases across the country was doubling about every three days. By three weeks into the lockdown, that rate had slowed dramatically.

Currently, the daily infection rate in Canada has been hovering between 600 and 700 new cases for the past week. Most of those cases are in Ontario, where the pace of the pandemic has not slackened as much as it has in other provinces.

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On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that much of the province is moving to the second stage of its reopening plan, which permits restaurants with outdoor patios and hair salons to operate, among other business, provided they used appropriate safety measures. For now, the Greater Toronto Area, along with some other regions where case counts remain high, is excluded from the change.

Samir Bhatt, who co-authored the Imperial College report, said a key takeaway from the work is that if restrictions are lifted, then substitute measures such as contact tracing and testing should be in place to rapidly isolate new infections. Individuals also need to co-operate by practising physical distancing to maintain low transmission rates.

“The point is that if people take behaviour precautions, you can offset,” Dr. Bhatt said.

Kate Zinszer, an epidemiologist at the University of Montreal who was not involved in either study, said the results provide a basic reality check that financial, social and other hardships that people have endured through the lockdown period produced a measurable impact.

“It’s really important for the public to know that there was a purpose for the measures and now we have quantitative proof showing that, indeed, they were effective," she said.

However, Dr. Zinszer added, it is also important to know what neither study attempts to provide, which is an in-depth analysis of the costs and consequences of prolonged lockdowns.

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Steven Hoffman, a professor at York University in Toronto and director of the Global Strategy Lab, said such an analysis is urgently required to understand how the negative effects of battling the pandemic can be minimized and made more equitable, particularly if there is a second wave of infections and people are less willing to endure the costs of another full-scale lockdown.

The obstacle in Canada is access to data that would allow such an analysis, Dr. Hoffman said.

“If we had the data," he added, "we could make some very strategic choices about which layers of protection we want to keep and which ones we want to lift or, in the future, which layers we want to reimpose versus those that we want to adjust before we introduce them again.”

Highlights from a live Q&A with The Globe's health columnist André Picard, where he answers questions on masks, protesting in the age of COVID-19, long term care homes, coronavirus antibodies and adapting to a future where COVID-19 remains in our society. The Globe and Mail

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