Due to the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, Israel’s unemployment rate has skyrocketed in the last six weeks from less than four percent to 24%. Much suffering to the population unable who have been put on leave without pay or dismissed has resulted. 

Only employees in vital industries are currently allowed to work.. The situation won’t last forever, but as people are gradually allowed to leave their homes and go to work at the majority of jobs, a technique is needed to reduce the risk of virus infection while allowing the economy to recover. 

Think of dieting. One can fast for two months and lose weight, but you will probably die. Even if you survive, you will quickly gain weight again. Similarly, a two-month lockdown will suppress the coronavirus, but it will kill the economy. 

Lockdown will push hundreds of millions of people around the world into unemployment and poverty. Many sectors of the economy will collapse. At the end of each lockdown, remaining patients will cause a resurge in the epidemic, forcing another lockdown. This is the well-known yo-yo effect, with the number of coronavirus patients going up and down. At the same time, the global economy will be hit hard – and when the dust settles, more people will have died of hunger than of the coronavirus.

Prof. Uri Alon, a systems biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and his team including graduate students Omer Karin and Yael Korem-Kohanim, together with senior engineer Boaz Dudovich of Applied Materials, have suggested a way out of this dilemma. 

Based on an epidemiological model they developed, their proposed policy would effectively suppress the coronavirus and at the same time allow sustainable, albeit reduced, economic activity. The model that the scientists developed is based on intermittent lockdown – five days of lockdown and two days of work every week. 

In this way, the virus replication number, i.e., the number of people infected by each infectious person, drops below one – the magic number that causes the epidemic to decline.

A four-day work/10-day lockdown strategy is even better, the researchers suggest, as it would allow those infected at work to stop becoming infectious at home. Alon noted that after several such cycles, the number of infected people would drop dramatically. The epidemic could then be contained until sufficient testing is carried out and an effective medical treatment or a vaccine is developed – which will remove the need for a lockdown.

Intermittent lockdown may be the only viable option for countries that can’t deploy sufficient testing in time, the Weizmann scholars continued. It would allow millions to work two days a week, sustaining key economic sectors. People will hold a 40% position instead of being completely unemployed – an economic and psychological game-changer.

Fixed workdays for everyone will allow workers and managers to plan ahead and stay productive. “Our main message,” concluded Alon, “is to open up the discussion on lockdown and point out that a well-designed smart lockdown strategy can suppress the epidemic and sustain the economy.”

Alon earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his doctoral degree in theoretical physics from the Weizmann Institute. After having his interest in biology sparked, Alon headed to Princeton University for his postdoctoral work in experimental biology. He returned to the Weizmann Institute as a professor.