Fact check: Studies show COVID-19 lockdowns have saved lives

As many states enter a new wave of more stringent measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, users on social media have been sharing posts that question the purpose of so called “lockdowns”. Some posts falsely claim that these measures “don’t save lives”. This article examines some of the reasons why lockdowns have been called, and how effective they have been.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

An example of a lockdown-sceptic post circulating on social media ( here ) features the screenshot of an entry in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on the word “lockdown”, which includes a definition that reads: “the confinement of prisoners to their cells for all or most of the day as a temporary security measure”. The image has an overlaid text that reads: “Never forget where the word LOCKDOWN comes from… A loving government isn’t trying to save you from COVID…it is using COVID to justify MARTIAL LAW”

While this definition is indeed included in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry here , the screenshot fails to show two further definitions. According to Merriam Webster, the term also stands for a “temporary condition” imposed by authorities, for example, during the outbreak of an epidemic disease, “in which people are require to stay in their homes and refrain from limit activities outside the home involving public contact (such as dining out or attending large gatherings)”.

An article by The Guardian delves into the evolution of the meaning of the word lockdown here .

In April, Reuters debunked a similar claim that the U.S. coronavirus response was “slowly introducing” martial law and found it to be false ( here ) .


Reuters has reported on international studies that have determined that lockdowns potentially have saved millions of lives here .

However, it is also true that some lockdown measures may have a direct impact on a person’s income and mental health. Further reading about short, mid and long-term effects of lockdowns are visible here .

The World Health Organization (WHO) explains here that such measures can have “a profound negative impact on individuals, communities and societies by bringing social and economic life to a near stop”, something that according to the organization, disproportionately affect vulnerable groups.

But evidence also suggest that stringent but temporary restrictions, could actually benefit the economic recovery because they reduce the spread of the disease. The International Monetary Fund, for example, determined here that while lockdowns “impose short-term costs” they may lead to “a faster economic recovery. The organization states that “by bringing infections under control, lockdowns may thus pave the way to a faster economic recovery as people feel more comfortable about resuming normal activities” ( page 74).

Reuters contacted two experts, Dr. Elizabeth Stuart, Associate Dean for Education at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health ( here ) and Dr. Stuart Ray, infectious disease expert with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine ( here ) . Both confirmed that lockdowns do reduce transmission of the SARS-Cov-2 and highlighted that a more “targeted” or “proportional” approach of restrictions can mitigate the risk of infection, while balancing other concerns about the economy and mental health.


Without a treatment or vaccine available, Stuart said, the world had to rely on “really core behavioral factors”, such as physical distancing, hands washing, wearing masks, that have been used as “effective ways” of preventing transmission of infectious diseases in the past. “They do help”, she said.

Ray pointed to evidence ( here and here ) that has suggested that the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is mitigated by “progressively stringent measures”, such as stay-at-home orders.


“In March we had all had to lockdown because so little was known”, Stuart said. But she added that as experts have learnt more about the disease and how it spreads, it has appeared there are ways to implement a more targeted approach to this measure.

“I wouldn’t even call them lockdowns, but more ‘targeted interventions’, that restrict the higher risk activities but allow lower risk activities to precede”, Stuart said.

Stuart referred to Michigan as an example. On Nov. 15, in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced new restrictions for the state and asked people to be cautious, to avoid a stay-at-home order ( ) . As reported here by CBS Detroit, the new order states that “high schools and colleges must halt-in person classes, restaurants must stop indoor dining” as well as limitation of gathering sizes and a temporary closure of entertainment businesses. See new emergency order .

Ray dismissed the need for a national stay-at-home order but rather referred to “staged or proportional” measures depending on the risk, in which “things are more restrictive when the prevalence of new infections is higher”. He highlighted the need for “really clear national messaging” and said that not all places needed the same measures at the same time. To limit the impact of this pandemic, he said, “we have to have everyone understand the status where they are and where transmissions are happening nearby”.


Some posts that attempt to dismiss the role of stricter measures to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus argue that COVID-19 has a survival rate of over 99% ( here ).

While the exact mortality rate of COVID-19 is still not known, a hypothetical rate of 1% would still result in a massive number of deaths if left to spread unchecked.

When asked about this claim, Stuart told Reuters that one out of a hundred was still a “high mortality”, adding that there was a “ripple effect of consequences” for a lot of people, not just the deceased individual. “If there are reasonable preventive strategies that we can take in order to reduce that even further we should do that”, she said.

While it appears that a high percentage of people recover from the disease, Ray noted that “there are also non- lethal complications of COVID-19 that are important, so it is challenging to relax control measures when the spread is high”. Further reading about the lingering known effects of COVID-19 is visible here , here and here .


Other posts also argue that these restrictions “don’t save lives”, citing an alleged increase in suicides here.

Earlier this year, experts warned here that COVID-19 might increase suicide rates, citing adverse effects on people with mental illness and the population in general “might be exacerbated by fear, self-isolation, and physical distancing” and “well-recognised risk factors for suicide” like loss of employment and financial stressors.

Richard Dunn, associate Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Connecticut ( here ), who has studied the relation between mental health and the economy, told Reuters by email that arguments for why lockdowns may increase suicide risk present valid arguments, but that “they are selective” and that some of these arguments “ignore important countervailing effects”.

According to Dunn, such countervailing effects include technology that facilitates social contact ( here ), and a “locus of control” ( here ) through which individuals can take proactive steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Suicide risk increases as individuals feel they lack control over their life and what control they do have is without worth,” said Dunn.

In addition, Dunn said, is the concept of “social connectedness”, which tends to increase in the face of a communal threat, such as a pandemic. “During wars and natural disasters, despite their great economic upheaval, suicide rates tend to drop because people rally to a common cause,” he said. To exemplify this, Dunn referred to the numerous scenes from around the world of people cheering health workers from their balconies ( here , here ).


Some posts on the issue of lockdowns are missing context, and some present information that is contradicted by international studies. While it is true that more restrictive measures that aim to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 can have an impact in income and mental health, multiple studies suggest that stay-at-home orders and other nonpharmaceutical interventions have a determining role in reducing the transmission of the virus. Experts highlight that a more “targeted” approach rather than a “nationwide” lockdown, can limit the impact of the pandemic while balancing other economic, mental health and social concerns.