state of disaster lockdown

Photo: Step Above / YouTube

A month off, then 50 days on: Could ‘intermittent lockdowns’ save SA?

Is this a glimpse into South Africa’s future? The battle against COVID-19 could be won by occasionally lifting lockdown restrictions.

state of disaster lockdown

Photo: Step Above / YouTube

The European Journal of Epidemiology has published a paper this week, which argues the merits of having lockdown periods occur intermittently up until 2022. The “on-again, off-again” restrictions would help nations across the globe both manage the COVID-19 pandemic and restart their economies.

What is the R number and why is it important?

A team of top researchers has contributed to the article, and the plans – which use South Africa as part of their case studies – certainly raise an eyebrow or two. Their theory is based on controlling the “R number” in each country – this figure estimates how many people can be infected by just one person carrying COVID-19, and it is vital to get this number below one.

The Journal ran tests and models on allowing countries to completely lift their lockdowns, while mitigating the spread of disease with social distancing protocols. This takes the R number down to 0.8, and although it sounds good on the surface, the group say the rate of infection would still overwhelm ICU capacity in Mzansi.

COVID-19: Could intermittent lockdowns be used in South Africa?

The ideal R number that must be achieved before lockdowns are lifted comes in at 0.5. If SA could prove that we can meet this target, then it may be better to lift the restrictions for a little while before putting them back in place for when COVID-19 rates inevitably rise. They explain:

“Our models predict that simultaneous cycles of 50-day mitigation intervention followed by a 30-day relaxation would reduce the effective reproduction number R to 0.8 in all countries. However, this rolling measure is insufficient to keep the number of patients needing healthcare below available critical care capacity.”

“By contrast, we found that dynamic cycles of 50-day suppression [lockdown] followed by a 30-day relaxation, aimed at reducing the effective R to 0.5, were suitable for all settings to keep ICU demand within national capacity. This may cause a longer pandemic – beyond 18 months – but global mortality would drop by 131 643 in that time.”

European Journal of Epidemiology

How intermittent lockdowns would work in SA:

The scientists propose a 50-day lockdown period, followed by 30 days of complete relaxation (with social distancing in place), before repeating the cycle over the next 18 months to two years:

  • A 50-day suppression followed by a 30-day relaxation will effectively lower deaths significantly for all countries.
  • An intermittent combination of social distancing and a relaxed period may allow national economies to “breathe”.
  • The specific durations of these interventions can be individually defined by each country, according to their needs.
  • The efficient implementation of dynamic suppression interventions will buy nations ‘more time’ to eradicate the virus.
  • This graph highlights just how crucial it is to lift the lockdown only when the R number is healthy in South Africa:
Source: European Journal of Epidemiology