COVID Lockdowns Were a Giant Experiment. It Was a Failure.



On April 8, 2020, the Chinese government lifted its lockdown of Wuhan. It had lasted 76 days — two and a half months during which no one was allowed to leave this industrial city of 11 million people, or even leave their homes. Until the Chinese government deployed this tactic, a strict batten-down-the-hatches approach had never been used before to combat a pandemic. Yes, for centuries infected people had been quarantined in their homes, where they would either recover or die. But that was very different from locking down an entire city; the World Health Organization called it “unprecedented in public health history.”

The word the citizens of Wuhan used to describe their situation was fengcheng — “sealed city.” But the English-language media was soon using the word lockdown instead — and reacting with horror. “That the Chinese government can lock millions of people into cities with almost no advance notice should not be considered anything other than terrifying,” a China human rights expert told The Guardian. Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, told the Washington Post that “these kinds of lockdowns are very rare and never effective.”

The Chinese government, however, was committed to this “zero-COVID” strategy, as it was called. In mid-March 2020, by which time some 50 million people had been forced into lockdowns, China recorded its first day since January with no domestic transmissions — which it offered as proof that its approach was working.  For their part, Chinese citizens viewed being confined to their homes as their patriotic duty.