Story at a glance

  • China has quarantined 35 million people amid the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Health experts say the quarantine locks infected people with the uninfected, is impossible to enforce and can cause residents to distrust the government.
  • So far, the coronavirus has infected more than 830 and left 26 dead.

As China has quarantined 35 million people in an effort to contain the deadly coronavirus, health experts worry the lockdown could be ineffective and possibly backfire. 

Restrictions were put into place Friday, just one day after China restricted travel in and out of Wuhan, the city of 11 million people where the virus is believed to have originated, and four other nearby cities in the Hubei Province. By Friday, restrictions were announced in at least eight other cities. The coronavirus has killed 26 and infected more than 830.

But health experts tell the Washington Post that locking down a region like China’s Hubei Province could make things worse. Quarantining a region locks the infected together with the uninfected. It increases the burden on authorities and it is nearly impossible to enforce. And experts say it can cause citizens to distrust the government, prompting them to refuse to report their symptoms, further exacerbating the outbreak. 

“The first and golden rule of public health is you have to gain the trust of the population, and this is likely to drive the epidemic underground,” Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University, told the Washington Post. “The truth is those kinds of lockdowns are very rare and never effective.”

China has halted transportation links in and out of Wuhan, as well as 13 other areas across the central part of the country. This comes as hundreds of millions were expected to be traveling across the country for New Year celebrations. 

“They’re doing it because people who are in political leadership always think that if you do something dramatic and visible that you’ll gain popular support,” Gostin said. “They couldn’t have any sound public health advice.” 

The Post reports that in the U.S., mandatory limits on movement for residents in cities or regions have received little serious consideration in planning for disease outbreaks. In a 2007 report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on responding to a flu pandemic, experts made no recommendation to use mandatory lockdowns, even in the event of a “Category 5” outbreak, one of the most critical in which 2 percent of those diagnosed with an infection die. 

Instead, the report said authorities should rely on voluntary isolation of infected and uninfected people, as well as limiting activities in schools, mass gatherings and encouraging people to work from home. 

Published on Jan 24, 2020