Even as the coronavirus continues to rage across Europe, some countries in the region are considering loosening social distancing restrictions to regain a semblance of normalcy — and restart the economy.
But experts fear lifting those measures too early, or too quickly, could cause a surge of infections, deepening the region’s health crisis.
Austria plans to ease its lockdown next week; if it goes through with it, it will be the continent’s first nation to reopen its closed shops and restaurants. Denmark will open schools and day care centers on April 15, ending the country’s three-week-long halt. On April 9, the Czech Republic lifted a number of its social distancing measures, and plans to roll back its travel ban on April 14, allowing citizens to leave and foreigners to enter.
Earlier this week, Italy and Spain two of Europe’s hardest-hit countries, were also considering easing their lockdowns — before deciding a few days later that they’d need to extend them for at least a few more weeks.
“For each country, they’re trying to find that unique sweet spot, the perfect one where you can manage everything,” Arjen Boin, a crisis management expert at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, told me.
“It’s going to be one of the biggest challenges democratic governments have faced in a long time, finding that golden midway between a reemerging pandemic and killing your economy,” Boin said. “That’s going to require a lot of wisdom and exceptional leadership.”
Of course, countries need to open up sometime, and there’s never a perfect moment to do so. And what they learn from their decisions may offer lessons for the rest of the world.
“They’re engaging in an experiment,” said Martin McKee, an expert on European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “That may not be a bad thing, but like any experiment there are risks attached to them.”
The question now is if those risks outweigh the benefits — and no one really knows the answer.
European leaders are pursuing “a step-by-step resurrection”
Wearing a mask and standing behind plexiglass, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz addressed members of parliament on April 6 to present his plan for “a step-by-step resurrection” of the country’s economy.
Here’s that plan, according to the New York Times:
Small shops, hardware stores and garden centers will be allowed to reopen on April 14, followed by other businesses at the end of the month. Restaurants and services that involve close human contact, like gyms and hairdressers, might not get the green light until mid-May or June.
The Washington Post reports that Austria’s schools are also scheduled to resume normal business in the middle of May, though that decision will be reevaluated at the end of April. Finally, public events might once again be allowed in July.
But, Kurz warned lawmakers, “We are not out of the woods.”
In Denmark, the government is pursuing a similar gradual, incremental reopening. “It’s like walking a tightrope,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at a press conference on April 6. “If we stand still, we may fall. If we go too fast, it may soon go wrong. We don’t know when we’ll be on firm ground again.”
Denmark’s schools and daycare centers will reopen on April 15, though the New York Times notes that “that is subject to the number of infections stabilizing.” The Times says that “restaurants and borders will remain closed for now. The government has also banned large gatherings through August.”
The Czech government has proposed a modest rollback of its travel ban. For example, someone entering the country must be quarantined for two weeks. That stipulation will surely keep many away from visiting Prague any time soon. The government will also allow shops that sell hobby products and building material to open, as well as small-group outdoor sports like running and biking to continue.
For many, this seems like a turning point — but it’s not clear that this development is purely good news.
“You can’t just open up everything. That’s just completely crazy.”
All three of these countries were among the first in Europe to impose strict lockdown measures, so in some ways it makes sense that they’d be among the first to loosen those restrictions. Yet the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s McKee told me it may still be too early for these countries to start lifting social distancing restrictions.
If they are going to go forward with them, though, McKee said the slow-and-steady approach makes the most sense to him. “You can’t just open up everything. That’s just completely crazy,” he told me.
What’s clear from the experts I spoke to is that there is no magical “right time” to put a country back to work or a “right way” to do it. Even plans for the American response reviewed by Vox’s Ezra Klein show a variety of methods and timelines to quash the outbreak while building the economy back up, and none are satisfying.
McKee offered a set of criteria for when a country should consider loosening restrictions. First, the mortality curve must be coming down. Second, its disease transmission rate should be “R1” or less, meaning that, on average, one sick person is passing on the virus to just one other person. Third, the government must have a lot of accurate data, particularly on who’s infected and who they’ve been in contact with.
Until then, all countries should keep the same social distancing measures they have now, McKee said.
It’s not clear the European countries considering a change satisfy those criteria. A recent study found that Austria has more infected people than official government figures show. The official infection rate in the Czech Republic is slowing, but it’s still unclear just how widespread the disease is in the country.
And even though official statistics for the moment look better in Denmark, much of the population worries that it’s too early to send children back to school. “My child will not be a Covid19 guinea pig,” is the name of a 35,000-person strong Facebook group in the country.
So why take the risk? Much of the reason has to do with staving off an economic collapse. But another major reason, experts noted, is simple political concerns.
“The strategy we follow is a political choice”
Olga Löblová, a political scientist at the University of Cambridge who lives in Prague, explained why the government in the Czech Republic announced the end of travel restrictions. Partly, she said, it was a political decision.
“The reason why the government actually announced this intention and start easing the measures was to give people hope that this won’t go on forever,” she told me. “They have to start working on some kind of an exit strategy or at least some kind of vision to placate the opposition,” she continued, noting those out of power are losing their patience with the country’s lockdown.
The same is true elsewhere.
In Denmark, Prime Minister Frederiksen acknowledged last week that “the strategy we follow is a political choice.” In Austria, Kurz regained his leadership post after a scandal brought down his government last year, leading experts to say he’s sensitive about keeping the public on his side.
Even in countries that are continuing their lockdowns, there are signs that politics might soon change that calculus.
In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, weak after barely forming a minority government in January, said he would lift a ban on nonessential work after Easter — a decision experts believe is motivated by his precarious political situation. In Italy, leadership there said getting the economy roaring again was the only way the Europe Union could compete against China and the US.
In other words, the choices European leaders are making aren’t solely based on health concerns. They’re based on political ones. “All crises are political at heart,” the University of Leiden’s Boin told me. “Leaders are always aware of how their performance will be weighed by the people.”
Which partly explains why the warnings of top European health officials seem to be going unheeded.
“Now is not the time to relax measures,” the World Health Organization’s Europe director Hans Kluge said at a recent news conference. “It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive toward suppression with the whole support of society.”