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World leaders mimicked each other in implementing Covid-19 lockdown measures, study suggests

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World leaders took decisions on rolling out Covid-19 lockdown measures based on what neighbouring countries were doing to prevent the spread of the virus, a new study has suggested.

Swedish researchers reached their conclusion after examining when decisions such as school closures and restrictions on internal travel were implemented in 36 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – including the UK, United States and New Zealand.

They found that despite differences in the spread of the virus, countries mimicked each other in a short space of time, with around 80 per cent of OECD nations implementing multiple measures within a two week period in March.

The researchers, whose work was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Pnas), said this was “striking” given the differences in the scale of the pandemic in each country, the preparedness of healthcare systems and the make-up of their populations.

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Author Professor Karl Wennberg, from the Institute for Analytical Sociology at Linkoping University, said: “We found that the decisions were not based on, or had a very weak correlation to, standard epidemiological indicators such as number of infections, number of deaths, intensive care capacity etc.

“A much stronger determinant was whether many neighbouring countries had already implemented measures.”

The researchers found that with the exception of population density, it was not primarily the country’s exposure to Covid-19, its demographics or healthcare capacity that determined how quickly a country will lockdown but the number of countries who have already done so in the same region.

They added it was “at best a partial answer” that this was the case because the countries were uniformly exposed to the same threat of coronavirus.

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Professor Wennberg said: “Politicians are very much human, they react and observe and are influenced by what their fellow leaders in neighbouring countries do.”

The study also suggested countries with strong democracies are slower to implement restrictive policies, but are more likely to mimic the actions of their neighbours.

Professor Wennberg explained this may be due to the variety of voices that can influence democratic government including unions and corporate leaders as well as the public.

He added leaders of strong democracies may be less willing to impose strict measures such as curfews when compared to more authoritarian countries.

The authors, also from the universities of Uppsala and Gothenburg, said their work was not a judgment on when it would be optimal to take lockdown measures, but said countries may have done so too early or too late.

Professor Wennberg said he hoped the pattern would not be repeated with local peaks of the virus or a second wave to show leaders have learned.

He said: “It’s very natural for human beings to mimic each other in times of great uncertainty but now we know much more about the virus and how it spreads and how it’s treated, my hope would be countries adopt much more precise and tailored measures for specific regions and cities.”

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