Reality check: No, the WHO didn’t reverse its position on coronavirus lockdowns

The World Health Organization has been working this week to clarify its stance on pandemic lockdowns after one of its officials acknowledged the negative economic consequences such measures can bring. 

Dr. David Nabarro, the organization’s special envoy on COVID-19, made an appeal for world leaders to “stop using lockdowns as your primary control method.”

“Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer,” Nabarro told a British news network on Oct. 9.

Many people online, including politicians, began interpreting the comments as the WHO “reversing” its stance on lockdowns. Others latched onto the argument that the WHO’s comments were the first time the organization admitted that lockdowns are harmful.

That’s far from the case, said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

“They never said they don’t work, they just said it’s not a permanent solution,” he said.

“It was never meant to be a permanent solution.”

Since COVID-19, the WHO has come under pressure for its handling of the virus, including whether it was too slow to declare a global health emergency and whether its praise for China’s handling of the virus created a false sense of security.

However, its stance on lockdowns has stayed consistent since April. It repeatedly recognized that stringent measures like lockdowns can be effective at stopping the spread of the virus, but they can be problematic if done long-term.

Or, as Nabarro said, if it is a country’s “primary” measure.

“Shutdowns and lockdowns can slow COVID-19 transmission by limiting contact between people,” reads the WHO’s guidance from April 14. “However, these measures can have a profound negative impact on individuals, communities, and societies by bringing social and economic life to a near stop.”

Though lockdowns were widespread and arguably necessary for many countries at the outset of the pandemic, the WHO acknowledged in the same report that there is an “urgent need to plan for a phased transition away from such restrictions that will enable the sustainable suppression of transmission at a low-level whilst enabling the resumption of some parts of economic and social life.”

The guidance stayed consistent in May, where the organization outlined criteria for countries to consider before lifting lockdowns, stay at home orders and other restrictions; and again in June. In a statement to Global News on Thursday, the WHO’s press office said: “Our position on lockdowns and other severe movement restrictions has been consistent since the beginning.”

So why the confusion?

“This is par for the course when it comes to this disease and public communication,” said Deonandan.

“You can speak as specifically as you want, but in the era of public media, it’s really easy to take things out of context, either unintentionally or, most commonly, deliberately, which I think is what’s going on here.”

Deonandan believes the misinterpretation of the WHO’s comments — whether “deliberate” or not — might stem from the blurring of lockdowns and restrictions.

“It’s a semantic issue, sure, but it’s an important distinction,” he said.

“A lockdown, of course, is when everything is closed, when no one can leave the house. Now we have restrictions, and restrictions are sustainable.”

The idea that the WHO had “reversed” its guidance was most prominently picked up by the U.S. president.

In response to Nabarro’s comments, Donald Trump tweeted “The World Health Organization just admitted that I was right.”

“Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world,” he said on Oct. 12. “The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. Open up your states, Democrat governors. Open up New York. A long battle, but they finally did the right thing!”

Experts agree — lockdown orders have drawbacks. Closures slashed economies, hampered education, increased domestic violence, and fostered remarkable psychological effects.

The WHO yet again recognized this in a thread of tweets that followed Trump’s one day later.

“Lockdowns are not sustainable solutions because of their significant economic, social and broader health impacts,” read one tweet. “However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’ve been times when restrictions were necessary and there may be other times in the future.”

Lockdowns are part of the “hammer and dance” principle, said Deonandan, which the WHO was trying to communicate.

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