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Lockdowns saved over 3 million lives in Europe, study shows

Credit: Jules Johnston/The Brussels Times

About 3.1 million deaths linked to the coronavirus have been prevented due to lockdowns and strict quarantine measures in several European countries, according to a study by Imperial College London.

The drastic measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, such as the closing of shops, businesses, schools and the hospitality industry as well as asking people to stay indoors as much as possible were implemented in February and March in most countries.

The study by Imperial College London, published in scientific journal Nature on Tuesday, wanted to calculate the impact of these lockdowns in 11 European countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Their calculation started on 24 February and ran until 4 May, when most countries started gradually lifting their lockdowns. By that time, approximately 130,000 deaths had been recorded in those countries as a result of the virus.

“This data suggests that without any interventions, such as lockdowns and school closures, there could have been many more deaths from Covid-19,” said researcher Samir Bhatt.

The researchers used certain disease models to predict how many deaths would have occurred without a lockdown.

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In total, around 3.2 million people would have died by 4 May if the governments had not imposed restrictions, according to the researchers’ calculations. As the official death toll of these countries is about 130,000, the lockdowns saved approximately 3.1 million lives.

The number of infections avoided by the quarantine measures was also calculated, by following the evolution of the R-number, (reproduction number), which indicates how many people are infected by someone who already has the virus.

“Using a model based on data from the number of deaths in 11 European countries, it is clear to us that non-pharmaceutical interventions– such as lockdown and school closures, have saved about 3.1 million lives in these countries,” said researcher Seth Flaxman.

“Our model suggests that the measures put in place in these countries in March 2020 were successful in controlling the epidemic by driving down the reproduction number and significantly reducing the number of people who would have been infected by the virus,” he added.

Before the lockdowns started, the R-number for those countries were well above 1, meaning that one infected person infected many others each time, allowing the virus to spread rapidly.

By 4 May, all countries had managed to bring that number below 1, meaning that an infected person infects less than one other person, indicating that the epidemic is on its way back. “However, it is not true that this is almost over. We are only at the beginning of this pandemic,” said Flaxman.

As the measures are gradually being relaxed, there is a risk that the number of infections will rise again. “This tells us to be very careful, and not to let go too much at once, because then you will not have any control anymore,” said researcher Axel Gandy. “We have to be very slow and careful, so that we can turn back the relaxations if it turns out that it does not work,” he added.

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times