We are nowhere close to ridding ourselves of Covid-19 or its horrendous worldwide death toll just yet, but many, though not all, believe that moving beyond the pandemic is now urgent. It’s a judgement call that could have dire consequences, but the jury is still out on whether easing the lockdowns, or not easing them for that matter, is the way to go.
Many fear a more ferocious second spike of the virus will occur once the lockdowns are phased out and that letting up on them will be fraught with dangers. They say that doing too much too soon may risk a new outbreak of the virus and if that occurred countries would have to resume stricter confinement measures.
Most countries have been under some level of lockdown. In China, Spain and Italy, for example, there was a total lockdown, and people were not allowed to leave their homes. In other countries such as Canada, essential businesses remained open, and people were allowed to go about buying their own groceries and walking or jogging while maintaining social distancing. However, shops, hair salons and barber shops were shut down, and larger events such as concerts and football matches where thousands congregate were cancelled. Sweden remained open with minor restrictions all along.
But, on the other hand, many believe that the toll on businesses and individuals has been massive, and easing the lockdowns is becoming a necessity as quarantine fatigue settles in. They are worried that by postponing the inevitable the world may never return to normality. It’s becoming critical to get people back to work, they say.
According to the UK newspaper The Guardian, “Of the 44 European countries to have imposed restrictions to curb the spread of the virus, 21 have started easing some of the restrictions and a further 11 are planning to do so soon.” Germany, which has had a lower rate of infections with the virus, has reopened playgrounds, museums and churches after having reopened small shops earlier. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had forewarned against lowering the guard too early and forgetting about social distancing, however, and the sudden rise in those testing positive in Germany has meant that the country may have to restrict some freedoms once more.
France announced a progressive and controlled lockdown exit plan, and Finland decided to lift restrictions and open daycare and lower-level schools. Denmark has reported that a partial easing of its lockdown has not led to a surge in new coronavirus infections, and daycare centres and schools have reopened in the country, followed by small businesses.
In Canada, each province is approaching easing its lockdown in its own way depending on how hard it was hit by Covid-19. Alberta took the first steps to open up with an emphasis on outdoor activities: Manitoba’s restaurant patios will reopen at half capacity. Ontario, plans to reopen elementary schools and childcare facilities soon. Surprisingly, the hardest-hit Canadian province, Quebec, is reopening retail stores. British Columbia has promised it will semi-open some of its shuttered facilities, but its health leaders remain apprehensive and cautionary. Even so, the University of Waterloo in Ontario has reservations, and it has confirmed that “social distancing at the current levels in Ontario and Quebec for six months could save close to 100,000 lives.”
Commercial centres in Abu Dhabi have eased restrictions and reopened their doors to a limited number of patrons, while Iran has resumed praying in mosques. Egypt loosened its lockdown for Ramadan somewhat but has just announced stricter Eid lockdown extending the curfew by four hours while halting public transport.
Subtle nuances will have to be applied as countries, exercising caution, consider their best options for easing their lockdowns. Over the next few months, phasing this operation and determining how best to go about it will be the name of the game.
The burning issue is crafting the best strategies to safely ease the lockdowns. A return to work may mean flexible or staggered working hours, shift work, or, more importantly, working from home as each and every business considers reopening. Public transport systems will become key to getting workers back on the job, but maintaining social distancing may entail fewer passengers while conducting the sterilisation of bus stops and metro stations along with underground trains and buses.
Two-metre distancing will remain as social distancing becomes indispensable, with people hugging and kissing almost unheard of. Wearing masks may become mandatory on public transport and in public closed quarters.
Innovation will come in handy too as ways of keeping people away from one another are sustained. Denmark now has drive-in concerts that the audience can listen to on FM radios, for example. Other countries are reviving drive-in cinemas. Cafés and restaurants may find ways to increase their exterior terraces and serve food differently while avoiding open buffets. Around the world, stores will allow a limited number of patrons in each facility and uphold distances, especially at payment points where plexiglas barriers will be mounted to protect buyers and servers.
Some environments may prove to be very difficult to reopen. Schools, especially elementary and daycare, will remain the biggest hurdle in the reopening dilemma as the concept of social distancing does not mean much to the very young. Virtual classes for older students will continue, but younger children will have to go to school so that their parents can go back to work.
Once air travel is reopened, it may turn out to be prohibitively expensive for many as fewer seats become the norm. There will also be a need to wear masks for the duration of flights.
More importantly, will we all rush to embrace the return to normality, or will some of us abstain as we have grown accustomed to isolation during the lockdowns and remain fearful of every touch and every sneeze? Will we ever hug and kiss our grandchildren again without worrying that they may bring infection along with affection?
Tiptoeing back to normality will be a long and difficult road indeed.
The writer is an academic and politic analyst. She is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly