Will we ever see another pandemic lockdown?

Four years ago, a mystery illness forced the residents of Wuhan into quarantine. As the WHO raises concerns about Disease X, the world may need a different approach

People wearing protective suits in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the centre of the country's Covid-19 outbreak, in April 2000. Reuters
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Four years ago today, the world witnessed the first Covid-19 lockdown, when Chinese authorities took drastic action against a mysterious new respiratory disease in the central city of Wuhan. Overnight, a metropolis of 11 million people fell silent, as strict quarantine rules kept people at home in an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

The world did not realise it at the time, but movement restrictions and mass testing were to become the norm in many countries in the months ahead. As the disease swept around the globe, entire economies were rocked to their core. Offices and schools closed, international aviation ground to a halt and scientists went into top gear in their efforts to find a vaccine.

No one wants to relive those times, but the reality is that Covid-19 was not an aberration in human history. Pandemics have always been with us and despite our increasing ability to come up with treatments, another virus in the mould of Sars‑CoV‑2 is always a possibility. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation, was right when he told the World Economic Forum last week that it was not alarmist to understand that such an illness – dubbed “Disease X” – had to be prepared for now, not when it strikes.

But what does preparedness look like in 2024? The picture is mixed. On one hand, there is much reason for optimism. Considerable medical knowledge was gleaned during the Covid pandemic; in what was a scientific leap forward, the mRNA technology that was initially developed to treat cancer, food and environmental allergies as well as genetic disease, was adapted to make life-saving vaccines. The public health lessons learnt from Covid are many – particularly when it comes to developing resilient populations who use exercise and healthy eating to improve their immune systems. AI-based technologies are in the ascendant and offer valuable tools for fighting a pandemic, for example by sorting through enormous public health data sets to uncover links and patterns in disease spread.

However, levels of global preparedness remain uneven. Too many low and middle-income nations generally lack the resources and healthcare infrastructure necessary to detect and treat a rapidly spreading mass contagion. Although some nations in the Global South have important lessons to teach the world about how to deal with an outbreak – such as the effective containment and treatment policies of several West African countries that have struggled with Ebola in the past – many more are worryingly vulnerable to the destruction a new disease could cause.

Luckily, there is a general acknowledgment that all countries must be ready for Disease X – pathogens know no borders. There is also an understanding that this preparation has to be funded adequately. Smart financing and international partnerships that involve governments, the WHO and international capital are a good first step. The work being supported by the World Bank’s Pandemic Fund is a good example.

It is unlikely that the response to a near-future Disease X will look exactly like that seen during the three-year Covid crisis. Too much experience has been gained – often painfully and at great cost. Most of the major missteps of the 2020-2023 period can be avoided. But the key is to act decisively and in partnership – now. Covid is still with us, as evidenced by high case numbers in Europe. Respiratory disease is still a major threat, as is the JN.1 variant identified by the WHO.

The 2020 Wuhan lockdown is a warning from history, and it is up to all of us to learn the lessons from those dark days.

Published: January 23, 2024, 3:00 AM