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Views And Reviews

The psychological effects of quarantining a city

BMJ 2020; 368 doi: (Published 28 January 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;368:m313
  1. G James Rubin, reader in the psychology of emerging health risks,
  2. Simon Wessely, Regius professor of psychiatry
  1. King’s College London, UK
  1. gideon.rubin{at}

Whether the epidemiological benefits of mandatory mass quarantine outweigh the psychological costs is a judgement that should not be made lightly

The emergence of a novel form of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, is creating a confused and rapidly evolving situation. As ever in the early stages of a major incident, facts are unclear. We’re not sure how many people have caught the disease, the fatality rate, the incubation period, how far it’s spread—or how worried we should be.

The imposition of travel restrictions on Wuhan—and an expanding number of other cities—has surprised many. The move has left over 20 million people caught in a modern form of quarantine. Regardless of whether it succeeds in controlling the outbreak, the widespread lockdown will inevitably have a psychological effect. Not surprisingly, the UK media are already reporting the emotional impact of both the outbreak and the response. Residents are said to be comparing the situation to “the end of the world,” hospitals are “overwhelmed,” and there are concerns about food shortages. “Panic in Wuhan” is commonly reported.

We must be careful of …

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