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No, the World Health Organization Did Not 'Backflip' on Lockdowns

A photo of the logo of the World Health Organization at their headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
A photo of the logo of the World Health Organization at their headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini (Getty Images)

This week, President Trump became the latest and loudest voice to advance a narrative that’s picked up steam among bad-faith contrarians eager to downplay the covid-19 pandemic. The (inaccurate) story is that the World Health Organization has now suddenly changed its mind about lockdowns being useful. This is wrong on two fronts, since the WHO has not changed its position on lockdowns and, in fact, has never been a proponent of lockdowns as the main way to prevent the spread of covid-19.

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The hubbub began October 9, when David Nabarro, a medical doctor, gave an interview to UK magazine The Spectator. Nabarro, who has often worked with the United Nations and the WHO throughout his long career, was appointed as one of the WHO Director-General’s Special Envoys on COVID-19 Preparedness and Response in February. At one point of the interview, Nabarro stated: “We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus”

Those words were quickly seized upon as proof that the WHO had changed its thinking about lockdowns. Here’s a sample of headlines that came about:

WHO backflips on virus stance by condemning lockdowns

Health official calls for halting lockdowns

UK Envoy to WHO Calls For End to Global Covid-19 Lockdowns

On Monday, Trump also weighed in, stating in a very normal tweet: “The World Health Organization just admitted that I was right. Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. 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!”

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The White House similarly later claimed, in a press call to reporters, that “the World Health Organization officially changed their policy” on lockdowns over the weekend.

Problem is, that’s complete bunk.

For starters, Nabarro isn’t the official voice of the WHO, but essentially an advisor. Even if he were, though, nothing he said in that interview represents a new stance by the public health organization. Since the very start of the pandemic, the WHO has been vocal about the limited utility of lockdowns.

All the way back in March, for instance, WHO official Mike Ryan warned that lockdowns would not be enough to defeat the pandemic, stating that the most they can do is buy countries time to put in strong public health measures to track and contain outbreaks once cases were suppressed to a relatively low level. Without enough of these measures, he added, “the danger is the disease will jump back up.”

There is a real debate among public health experts about how strict restrictions on physical distancing and movement should have been or should be moving forward during this pandemic. Some countries, such as New Zealand, opted for much heavier lockdowns in an effort to completely eliminate the disease within their borders before reopening. Most others opted for a suppression strategy, locking down enough to drive cases low and then relying on a combination of testing, case tracking, and some restrictions for areas of business that are especially risky, such as bars and indoor restaurants. Some countries have also embraced universal masking policies, while others have not. Then there’s the U.S., which did embrace suppression initially but began to reopen earlier than many outside experts advised, often without adequate containment measures for when cases began to rise again.

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But importantly, everyone is on board about lockdowns not being the only strategy to battle this pandemic, since they can have indirect harmful effects on the economy and public health. No countries seem to be currently implementing the sort of wide-scale restrictions that occurred earlier in the year. That includes the U.S., despite now being in the middle of a third peak of the pandemic, with around 220,000 Americans dead and climbing.

“WHO has never advocated for national lockdowns as a primary means for controlling the virus. Dr. Nabarro was repeating our advice to governments to ‘do it all,’” a representative for the WHO told Gizmodo in an email. “Governments, employers, communities should apply a package of proven public health measures that we know are effective for preventing transmission, including hand and respiratory hygiene, physical distancing, mask wearing, staying home if you’re sick, etc., as well as having robust systems for testing, isolating, tracing and quarantining, etc.”

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Much of Europe is unfortunately experiencing a rise in new cases, and many countries, including the Netherlands, look to be well on their way to a true second wave. The time bought during earlier lockdowns should make containing these outbreaks easier, while now widely used treatments such as steroids for the most severe cases will hopefully make this wave less deadlier than before. Countries have already begun to enact stricter restrictions on distancing to limit the spread of the virus, but again, few are advocating for total shutdowns, and neither is the WHO.

“If clusters and outbreaks do appear, they should be slowed and then suppressed promptly and that is why localized and targeted movement restrictions, implemented jointly by local actors and national authorities, are needed from time to time,” the WHO spokesperson wrote.

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This latest piece of misinformation is circulating at the same time as the Great Barrington Declaration, an open petition that calls for countries to embrace a “herd immunity” strategy while largely lifting any restrictions related to the pandemic. Though the document claims to be supported by a substantial number of legitimate medical professionals and experts, many signatures appear to be fraudulent (looking at you, Dr. Johnny Bananas) or not from people involved in infectious disease research or epidemiology. The group behind the letter has also received backing from the American Institute for Economic Research, a think tank funded by right-wing political groups and known for its campaigns to downplay climate change.

Contrary to a since-changed headline from News.com.au (owned by News Corp Australia, one of the companies owned by the Murdoch family that owns Fox News), the WHO has neither condemned lockdowns nor joined the Great Barrington Declaration.

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On Monday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had this to say about any herd immunity strategy: “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic. It is scientifically and ethically problematic.”

To be more blunt, a call for herd immunity is a call for abandoning people to a pandemic that is already the deadliest to have hit the U.S. in a hundred years and has killed over a million people worldwide. Lockdowns are an imperfect tool for fighting this virus, but they’re certainly more useful than listening to those who pretend to care about the rest of us in championing herd immunity.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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DISCUSSION

If the earth tilted on its axis tonight, and tomorrow Trump was saying “the sun no longer rises in the east”, I would be getting up at dawn to fact check him. Considering he is claiming to be “virus free”, going maskless, and offering to kiss people when his doctors still won’t produce a test showing he’s even cured; and the medical experts say you can still be shedding the virus for a period of time after passing a PCR test as proof of being cured.

Few, if any, areas are currently implementing the sort of wide-scale restrictions that occurred earlier in the year. That includes the U.S

Most of the US hasn’t really enacted a consistent lockdown plan. Some of the states with the highest infection rates are trying to go back to pre-pandemic normal right now.