Commentary: Why lifting lockdowns and easing restrictions will be harder for some countries

LONDON: It has been less than two months since the world scrambled to go into the “Great Lockdown” to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Now, many countries are considering their exit strategies. Some have already eased up.

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The push is largely economic. There is a lot scientists dont yet understand about the novel coronavirus, and there is no known cure or vaccine. Many countries are still experiencing a rise in infections.

But the lockdowns have played havoc with peoples livelihoods. Entire economies are in meltdown: The International Monetary Fund predicts the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

EVERY COUNTRY MUST CHOOSE THEIR PATH

Just as each nation chose a different route into lockdown, each is likely to choose its own exit path.

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It seems clear that the safest idea is to reopen slowly, in phases, while remaining ready to re-enter lockdown in case of new outbreaks.

By looking at how well a nation managed the first wave of the pandemic, and how ready it is to work remotely by falling back onto the online economy, we now understand how prepared nations are to restart economic activity without triggering fresh rounds of public health disasters.

LISTEN: Why lifting lockdowns and easing restrictions may be the biggest COVID-19 test facing countries

READ: Commentary: Europe learns lifting COVID-19 lockdowns doesnt come cheap

Not every country is well-equipped to ease itself out of a lockdown safely.

A nations ability to manage the outbreak relies on many factors: The willingness of governments to take decisive action; citizen compliance in staying home and social distancing; and capacity for adequate testing for the disease, including “contact tracing” – tracking down the people who have been in contact with those infected. Those characteristics are also key to managing future outbreaks.

Quarantine workers spray disinfectants at night spots of Itaewon neighborhood, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Seoul, South Korea, May 11, 2020. Yonhap/via REUTERS

In parallel, not every country is ready to shift much of its economic activity online. Around the world, not everyone has affordable, reliable internet service; or the jobs, devices and digital apps that would let them work productively from home; or ways to make payments and get public services online.

In some countries – though not all – workers who cant do their jobs remotely can reduce their in-person contact by using digital transactions, whether it is for carry-out food, e-commerce or receiving bailout checks and unemployment benefits.

Countries such as Germany, New Zealand and South Korea are strong in both disease-fighting and digital-economy preparedness. Their economic activity isnt as dependent on in-person interactions, and authorities can respond quickly if loosened rules result in a spike in cases.

READ: Commentary: Vietnam defies the odds on COVID-19

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In contrast, the US, Italy and Japan face different challenges before they can safely lift lockdowns.

1. COMPLIANCE RATES

Compared to countries worldwide, the US is more prepared to operate parts of its economy online, but its response to the outbreak indicates there may be difficulties after reopening.

States were inconsistent in issuing stay-at-home orders, and citizens compliance with the rules has varied widely.

Officials have been unable to test in large numbers, and only four states meet, or are on track to meet, the contact-tracing required to control future outbreaks.

The results are evident in the mortality rates in the US and other, better-prepared countries: Key statistic shows the US death rate was more than three times that of Germany, nearly 200 times those in New Zealand and South Korea.

2. STRONG PUBLIC HEALTH RESPONSE AT THE START

The countries that more efficiently managed this first outbreak and its consequences capitalised on their public health preparation to get a grip on the infection quickly.

Merkel made her statement at the Bundestag, the German parliament. (Photo: AFP/John MACDOUGALL)

Germany has a high volume of infections but low mortality. The country only knows this because it had tested extensively – at a rate of 21 people per 1,000, as compared with 9.8 per 1,000 in the US.

New Zealands government proved willing to rapidly impose severe restrictions on movement and found the public largely supportive and ready to comply.

South Korea, while among the earliest countries affected, kept its mortality among the lowest in the world through widespread testing and deploying technology for widespread contact tracing.

Infected individuals interactions were retraced using cellphone location data, surveillance camera footage and credit card records. Websites and apps offer details on infected peoples travel and exposure risks.

These approaches may prove hard for the US to replicate. The country is far from having testing rates like Germanys.

New Zealand has a much less polarised citizenry and far more trust in its national leadership than the US.

READ: Commentary: Contact tracing holds key to eliminating COVID-19 in post-lockdown New Zealand

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The South Korean technology-intensive approach to contact tracing would be considered too intrusive on individual privacy for the US.

3. BEING CLEAR-EYED ABOUT THE PROBLEMS

Italy initially underestimated the severity of its outbreak, but then imposed a strict lockdown with high citizen compliance and widespread testing and tracing. However, we found in our study that Italy is among the least prepared European Union members for a shift to a digital economy.

Germany, New Zealand and South Korea all have higher levels of internet access and service, digital payments and public services, and employers ready to handle remote work.

Japans situation is particularly challenging because it eased up its restrictions too early and then had to impose an emergency to stem additional outbreaks.

It is also relatively unprepared in digital terms because of a host of factors, ranging from peer pressure to come into the office, to security concerns, transactions that require a paper trail, often requiring official corporate seals, missing digital infrastructure and a continued aversion to digital payments.

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