In an effort to reduce face-to-face contact and contain the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries around the world implemented measures to reduce the mobility of people through curfews, stay-at-home lockdowns, school and workplace closures, transportation restrictions, closure of government offices, cancellations of public events, among others.
The effectiveness of these policies has depended largely on their design and implementation, but also on the pre-pandemic context of each specific country. The fact is that the world has observed variations in terms of internal mobility within countries.
Google´s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports data allows a trend analysis. The data shows how the movements of people have changed with the pandemic compared to a baseline (January 3 to February 6 2020), and it has specific categories of location (grocery and pharmacy, parks, transit stations, retail and recreation, workplaces and residential).
The data show some expected results. Workplaces, transit centers, retail and recreational locations show significant decreases in mobility since the pandemic started. This decrease occurs across regions and income groups. The first semester after the pandemic started –the first half of 2020– was the period with the largest decreases, particularly in transit stations and retail and recreation locations.
Low-income countries show the smallest changes. In workplaces, transit stations, retail and recreation places, low-income countries showed the smallest decrease, particularly during the first semester of 2020 (i.e., fewer people have stayed at home compared to high-income countries).
This is expected, among many reasons, because low-income countries tend to have less consolidated social security systems and higher percentages of informal economy and blue-collar employment, which makes it difficult for people to afford to stay at home and modify their daily routines without severely reducing their income.
Similarly, if we look at the data by region, we find that, in practically all semesters of the pandemic, Latin America and the Caribbean has seen the least decline in workplace mobility compared to the other regions. And counterintuitively (since the pandemic is not over), we find that in these last months of the second semester of 2021 there have been even more people commuting to work than before the pandemic. Since the pandemic started, the Latin American country that has registered the greatest decrease in workplace mobility (on a mean basis) is Panama, and the one with the smallest change is Brazil. This can be explained by the difference in measures taken to mitigate the pandemic. On the one hand, Panama is one of the countries that imposed strict mandatory quarantine measures at the beginning of the pandemic, and Brazil, governed by a president skeptical of the consequences of the disease, has been one of the countries with fewer internal restrictions.
The figures above present just one side of the story. The effects of lockdowns and reduced mobility are multifaceted. The WHO recognizes that
“Large scale physical distancing measures and movement restrictions, often referred to as ‘lockdowns’, can slow COVID-19 transmission by limiting contact between people.
However, these measures can have a profound negative impact on individuals, communities, and societies by bringing social and economic life to a near stop. Such measures disproportionately affect disadvantaged groups, including people in poverty, migrants, internally displaced people and refugees, who most often live in overcrowded and under-resourced settings, and depend on daily labour for subsistence”.
And some evidence suggests that mental health is a consequence of restricted internal mobility. One study shows that people’s mental health was, in all likelihood, strongly impacted by the pandemic and lockdown. The authors suggest that intensity for boredom, loneliness, worry and sadness increased in several countries of Western Europe, as well as the US.