Shuttering businesses, grounding airlines and ordering people to stay home was hard enough the first time. The thought of having to do it all over again is something world leaders don’t want to even contemplate.
From Italy to New Zealand, irrespective of how well the virus was contained, governments acknowledge that fresh waves of the deadly coronavirus are likely and that the policy tools to mitigate the damage are limited. The hope is that localizing quarantines to towns, cities and regions will be enough to snuff out bouts of infections as they come.
U.K.’s Boris Johnson was reluctant to order a lockdown and then ended up in intensive care fighting for his life after contracting Covid-19. Yet he finds the idea of isolating the nation again so off-putting that he compared it to a nuclear deterrent: “I certainly don’t want to use it.” French Prime Minister Jean Castex, was equally blunt: “We won’t survive, economically and socially.”
At the other end of the globe, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has warned that it just takes one mistake to be exposed to the virus again. But even for her, reverting to a nationwide lockdown would be a “measure of last resort.”
It all speaks to the great elephant in the room: while scientists warn it could take years to control a deadly virus that has killed more than 630,000 worldwide, there is no appetite to sustain the hiatus on travel, work and leisure that has upended everyone’s lives in 2020.
With the world facing its worst recession since the Great Depression and U.S. President Donald Trump fighting for re-election in November, voters are on edge. Politicians of all stripes are looking for ways to ease the pain—not add to it—as fear morphs into anger and discontent.
“Populations can be summoned to heroic acts of collective self-sacrifice for a while, but not forever,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama, author of “The End of History and the Last Man,” wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. “A lingering epidemic combined with deep job losses, a prolonged recession, and an unprecedented debt burden will inevitably create tensions that turn into a political backlash—but against whom is as yet unclear.”
The political calculus is to try and ride it out. Yet while efforts to get people back to stores, restaurants, bars and hairdressers demonstrate the urgency among governments of reviving economies, they also show the risks.
Europe’s hardest-hit country, Britain, reopened pubs and is now finding spikes in virus cases. Johnson, who aims to return to “significant normality” by Christmas, on Friday said his government is preparing the health service for a second wave of infections over the winter.
Countries around the Mediterranean Sea pray a glimpse of tourism will get them through the summer before the cold snap drives people indoors and ushers a second chapter to the pandemic.
Italy was the first Western democracy to quarantine the entire population as it became apparent its death toll was going to overtake that of China, where the virus originated. A person close to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described that decision as “shock therapy” that can’t be repeated. The euro’s weakest economy this week became the biggest beneficiary of the European Union’s $860 billion rescue package.
Populations have already shown they are restless. Spain had a similar trajectory to Italy and in Madrid the resentment spilled into the streets. In Serbia, a jump in cases prompted President Aleksandar Vucic, just re-elected in a landslide, to try and impose another curfew only for him to reverse course in the face of violent protests.
The situation is so desperate in Croatia, which relies on tourism more than any other country in the EU, that it pivoted from lockdown mode to embracing the Swedish model that allows bars and shops to stay open and there is no limit to size of public gatherings.
At one point the government considered banning all wedding celebrations after a cluster of cases were traced to one event. All it took was some bad press from prospective brides for the plan to be dropped.
Nowhere is the disconnect between the health risk and reticence to lock down more pronounced than in the U.S., the worst-hit nation with more than 140,000 dead and the number of infections soaring in battleground states Trump needs to win. But as far back as May, the president made his priorities clear.
“Will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes,” Trump said during a factory visit in Arizona, a crucial swing state, that month. “But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
The approaches have been so different it’s impossible to predict what governments will do when there is an agonizing trade off between deaths and the economy.
In places like Singapore or South Korea, mass testing and heavy fines were the strategies successfully deployed to stop the spread. By contrast, in the U.K., there was until recently no mandatory use of masks to go into a shop. It was left to “basic good manners.”
However unpalatable, the need to shut everything down may ultimately be forced upon leaders.
In Australia, residents of Melbourne have been ordered to stay home for six weeks and South Africa ordered schools to be shut again. Israel declared victory over the virus only for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn another shutdown could be inevitable.
New Zealand is unique in having eradicated the virus within its borders. Now it’s on high alert to keep it that way. Ardern, herself up for re-election this year, has deployed the military to enforce a quarantine on anyone entering the country.
Back in the U.S., Trump has resurrected his White House briefings on the virus in an attempt to reassure Americans he has the pandemic under control and life is going back to normal. On Thursday, though, he scrapped the highly attended Florida convention for the Republican Party he had been keen to hold for 20,000 ardent supporters.
“The country is in very good shape, other than if you look south and west—some problems,” he said. “That will work out.”
–With assistance from Josh Wingrove, Thomas Penny, Jasmina Kuzmanovic, Gordana Filipovic, Matthew Brockett, Iain Marlow, Michael Cohen, Andra Timu, Ivan Levingston, Edward Johnson and Jan Bratanic.