As public opposition to lockdowns grows, WHO seeks other methods to control virus

Economic shutdowns are "making poor people an awful lot poorer," a WHO special envoy for COVID-19 response said last week.

Updated: October 13, 2020 - 11:24pm

The World Health Organization has made a pronounced shift in its public messaging on economic and societal shutdowns as primary COVID-19 mitigation measures, now urging countries to consider such methods only as last resorts after exhausting other, less disruptive and damaging alternatives to contain the spread of the virus. 

The notable shift comes as public sentiment against lockdowns continues to grow, with a majority of U.S. voters now opposing such measures along with a series of protests in Europe against the continent's ongoing restrictions on daily life. 

Lockdowns have been among the more polarizing elements of the COVID-19 pandemic, with government leaders around the world imposing open-ended, often severe measures, including school and business closures, bans on large gatherings, the suspension of non-emergency healthcare procedures, the shuttering of houses of worship, and capacity limits on indoor events.

The World Health Organization — one of the primary institutions shaping the global response to COVID-19 — has expressed similar support for shutdowns. Earlier in the year, the WHO praised lockdown measures as viable means of fighting COVID-19, in particular noting China's aggressive use of lockdowns and whole-population house arrest to counteract the spread of the virus. 

"[W]hat China is doing — serious measures in Wuhan and Hubei province and others, hammering at the source — can help us to contain [the virus]," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a February press conference. 

The organization's message was unchanged in April, when Tedros said, "There is no question that stay-at-home orders and other physical distancing measures have successfully suppressed transmission in many countries."

As late as July, meanwhile, WHO Health Emergencies Program Executive Director Mike Ryan said that although officials "want to avoid whole countries going back into total lockdown ... there may be situations in which that is the only option."

Lockdowns could result in 'doubling of world poverty,' WHO official says

Last week, a strikingly different message emerged from the World Health Organization, one that urged governments to move away from the lockdown paradigm toward more targeted measures of virus containment. 

"We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus," British doctor David Nabarro said during a teleconference. 

"The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted," he continued, "but by and large, we'd rather not do it."

Nabarro, a special envoy for the WHO Director-General's COVID-19 response, said the world could see doublings of both poverty and malnutrition due to the global effects of economic lockdowns. 

"We really do appeal to all world leaders," he stressed, "stop using lockdown as your primary control method."

Mike Ryan offered similar strong language at a press conference in Geneva last week. "[W]e want to try and avoid ... these massive lockdowns that are so punishing to communities, to society and to everything else," he said, though he again stipulated that "sometimes it's unavoidable" to impose such restrictions.

"[W]e shouldn't accept that in every country the return of cases should be seen as an immediate return of the need for lockdown restrictions at a national level," he continued. "There are many things that can be done between those two points and we should make every effort to do so in order to keep our social and economic lives open and particularly schools and other vital services."

Public opposition to lockdowns grow

The WHO's about-face comes as public sentiment appears to be increasingly turning against harsh lockdown measures. A majority of likely voters, for instance, oppose further lockdowns in the U.S, a Just the News Daily Poll with Scott Rasmussen revealed this week. Those voters believe that "it is better [for the U.S.] to find a way to move forward" without shutdowns.  

In Europe, meanwhile, demonstrators in recent weeks have been turning out en masse to oppose COVID-19 restrictions, with thousands of protesters in Ireland, France, England, Belgium and elsewhere taking to the streets to demonstrate against mask mandates, capacity limits and other mitigation measures. 

Demonstrations against relatively targeted measures to fight COVID-19 could signal a small but growing opposition to any coronavirus restrictions throughout Europe, a sign that full-scale lockdowns might be met with even more opposition. Germany has seen multiple anti-lockdown protests, for instance, one of which was shut down by police in late August out of concerns over the potential spread of COVID-19. 

A new round of lockdowns in Europe looks increasingly unlikely, however. Getting out ahead of the U.N.'s recent messaging, numerous European leaders over the last few months have preemptively rejected the possibility of further national lockdowns like the ones imposed in the early spring, opting instead for targeted local lockdowns where cases have jumped. 

Many of the lockdowns imposed throughout the Western world mostly through March and April, have been loosened over time, with many state and national executives lifting some or all of those restrictions in phases over the last several months. 

Most U.S. leaders have indicated little desire for returning to full-on shutdowns. However, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden — who has made an allegedly negligent Trump administration response to COVID-19 the centerpiece of his campaign — said in August that he would "shut [the country] down" if his scientific advisors suggested he do so 

Hundreds of American academics, meanwhile, have signed a letter calling for a new U.S. shutdown, including a ban on interstate travel and home confinement except to get groceries, medicine or exercise. 

Nabarro said leaders should be fully forthcoming about the effects that any lockdown might have on vulnerable populations. 

"Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never, ever belittle" he said last week, "and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer."