With no vaccine and no cure yet available for COVID-19, the main approach to controlling the coronavirus pandemic has so far relied on keeping people apart through lockdowns and social distancing.
These drastic measures have flattened the curve of infections and limited the death toll from the disease. But they’ve brought businesses around the world to a screeching halt and plunged the global economy into its worst recession in decades.
Some disease experts are looking at alternatives for poorer countries that would basically involve going in and out of lockdown. The aim is to reach a balance between avoiding health systems being overwhelmed and completely choking economies.
"When you have something unprecedented, like COVID, you will have to come up with unusual solutions," Dr Rajiv Chowdhury, a senior epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, told Euronews in a TV interview.
His team modelled two scenarios across 16 countries and over 18 months. Each scenario involved a rolling cycle of 50 days of lockdown measures, and 30 days of relaxation, during which businesses reopened and social distancing was no longer required.
It found that a rolling lockdown could prevent health systems from being overloaded and significantly reduce mortality, but only if the lockdown period was a strict one, banning all non-essential movement.
Simple "mitigation" measures such as social distancing and bans on mass gatherings – like the ones currently in force across many Western countries – were not enough to slash transmission of the disease and prevent hospitals from being overrun.
Chowdhury argues that rolling lockdowns would particularly suit low and middle-income countries, whose health systems may easily be overwhelmed, and which may not have the capacities to carry out large-scale testing and contact tracing, like wealthier Western nations.
Poorer countries are also hit especially hard by the economic fallout from the pandemic.
A recent survey in Bangladesh showed that days after the nation went into lockdown, more than half of its households had lost their main source of earnings. For informal workers who aren’t eligible for any government support schemes, the sudden loss of income can be devastating.
Another option would consist in dividing these countries into zones and locking down only the hotspots where infection rates are highest – but this too would require strong nationwide surveillance systems and testing and tracing capacities.
"We live in an unusual time so we will probably have to be flexible and reorganise things accordingly," Chowdhury said.