Quirks & Quarks

What if we hadn't locked down? Studies show we saved many millions of lives

Scientists think mandating mask wearing could help us avoid another costly lockdown in the future

Scientists say mandatory masking could help us avoid future lockdowns

Lockdowns have been effective, but to avoid having to institute them again, scientists are calling for mandatory mask wearing in certain situations including in indoor spaces outside the home, in crowds when it's difficult to keep a safe distance and when taking public transportation. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Nobody likes a lockdown, but two new studies show how many millions of lives around the world lockdown measures have saved. And research is suggesting masks might be the way to avoid another lockdown.

Two studies published in the journal Nature calculate up the number of lives that were saved by aggressive lockdown measures.

The first study, from the University of California Berkeley, looked at six countries around the world, including China, the U.S., South Korea, Iran, France and Italy, and found that without lockdown measures, a half a billion more people would have been infected, with millions of deaths as a result.

The second study that looked at 11 European countries found that lockdown measures saved more than three million lives. 

Epidemiologist Dr. David Fisman from the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health said these findings mirror what he and his colleagues discovered when they looked at how effective the timing of lockdown measures were in Ontario. They found that if the lockdown had occurred one month later, there would have been around 15,000 deaths, which doesn't even include long-term care homes, "as opposed to the 600 or so that we've had from the community." 

Textile designer Corinne McManus (L), works with volunteers in their design studio in London, England where they are making colourful face masks for key workers during the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

"Look at your loved ones, (…) particularly over age 50, some significant fraction of those people would not be here now if it weren't for this lockdown," he said.

Look at your loved ones, (…) particularly over age 50, some significant fraction of those people would not be here now if it weren't for this lockdown.- Dr. David Fisman, University of Toronto

Masks look to be the way to avoid another lockdown

"If we're opening up our economy, that implicitly says we're going to be having more contacts with each other. So a way to counterbalance that is by decreasing the probability of transmission per contact," said Fisman.

Fisman said masks can reduce the risk of a person getting infected by someone else, but more importantly with COVID-19, they also make it less likely that an infected person will pass on the virus. 

Fisman told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald about a study from  Germany that looked at effectiveness of mandatory mask use, which they rolled out at different times in different regions.

He said mask use "almost acts like a shock in these models. They introduce the masks and bang — a week later, transmission is down."

This is why Fisman co-authored an open letter to federal and Ontario provincial public health officials calling on them to mandate mask wearing in certain situations, so we can open up the economy while still protecting ourselves. 

If, as we open up the economy, the virus starts spreading out of control again like it did prior to the lockdown, then Fisman said masks likely wouldn't be enough to halt the spread and to prevent us from tipping over into exponential growth. For that, he said, we needed a lockdown. 

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?