The United States and countries in Europe have moved forward with easing restrictions on people’s movement that were put in place to contain the spread of infections with the new coronavirus. Deliberate steering by the leaders is essential to proceed with normalizing the situation while preventing a second wave of the pandemic.
The new coronavirus has ravaged Europe, with Italy, Spain, France and Britain each suffering a toll exceeding 20,000 or even 30,000 deaths. Since March, each of those countries has taken strict “lockdown” measures, which include restricting residents’ movements outside and shutting down stores and factories.
Such restrictions on people’s behavior are legally binding, with penalties for those who disobey the enforcement. The restrictions are stricter than measures taken in Japan by declaring a state of emergency, which primarily involve asking the public to exercise self-restraint. As a consequence, the restrictions in Europe have dealt a harder blow to their economies and put a greater strain on people’s daily lives.
As the lockdown becomes prolonged, it will inevitably cause growing discontent among people. It makes sense to ease the restrictions in a phased approach when the pace of infection has slowed. The challenge is how to ease them prudently.
In Germany, all shops are allowed to reopen while taking steps to prevent new infections. Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the fact by saying, “We have reached the goal of slowing the spread of the virus.”
Germany’s solid medical system bolsters the country’s confidence in easing the restrictions. Germany has the largest number of intensive care beds per 100,000 people among major European countries, and it is more than twice that of Japan. Berlin has been successful in restraining the infection, preventing a medical collapse.
By contrast, other countries, where hospitals have been pushed into a state of dysfunction, face a tough road ahead. In Italy, outdoor exercise became allowed earlier this month. France is set to lift a restriction on going out, on the condition that people travel only within 100 kilometers of their homes.
The European Union has put forward its criteria for easing restrictions. Those include a reduced pace of new infections, large-scale testing capacity and sufficient medical system capacity.
First and foremost, each country needs to draw up its own exit strategy based on the situation, after improving its medical and testing systems, while considering the cost to society and the economy associated with the restrictions.
One source of worry is the United States, which has the highest number of people infected with the virus in the world. President Donald Trump has repeatedly made statements on prioritizing a resumption of economic activities. The governors of New York and other states dealing with serious virus outbreaks, on the other hand, have maintained a cautious approach on moves in that direction.
Moreover, a rift in society on this matter has been clearly exposed as people including Trump’s supporters have held protest rallies against the restrictions.
It will inevitably be difficult to put everything back to normal until a vaccine or a drug is developed and made available. Trump should acknowledge that there is a risk of a resurgent spread of infections if he eases restrictions without the backing of scientific evidence while setting the reopening of the economy as a foregone conclusion.
— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 9, 2020.