Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
Europe led much of the world into lockdown, but countries across the continent are now tiptoeing out.
Why it matters: Austria, Denmark, Italy and Spain relaxed some measures this week, while Germany and France unveiled staged reopening plans. The U.S., India and other locked-down countries will be watching closely as they consider their own exit strategies.
Flashback: Italy imposed the first nationwide coronavirus lockdown on March 9, with nearly all of Europe following suit over the next two weeks.
- The first and most urgent priority was to “flatten the curve” to prevent the virus from spreading uncontrollably and hospitals from being overrun.
- Many countries have succeeded. Germany reported 2,486 new cases on Wednesday, compared to 4,003 the previous Wednesday and 5,453 the Wednesday before that.
- But it has come at a tremendous cost. The IMF projects the most severe economic depression since the 1930s and estimates that every additional month in lockdown will cost European countries 3% of GDP.
The big picture: “One of the reasons why governments went into lockdown was that the public health benefits are very visceral — they’re right there, whereas the consequences are much more nebulous and far-reaching and diffuse,” says Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, a professor of economics at Oxford. “That’s changing now.”
- De Neve and around a dozen other senior government officials, economists and epidemiologists have been tasked with producing a cost-benefit analysis of extending the U.K.'s lockdown.
- “At some point, the economic costs and other implications will outstrip even the larger notions of health and well-being, so releasing the lockdown will be the right thing to do,” he says. “The question, of course, is when?”
The answer, according to U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, is not for at least three weeks.
- Raab said Thursday that relaxing measures now would risk a second wave of deaths and possibly a second lockdown, while inflicting more economic damage over the long term.
- “We’ve just come too far, we’ve lost too many loved ones, we’ve already sacrificed far too much to ease up now, especially when we’re beginning to see the evidence our efforts are starting to pay off,” he said.
The state of play: The deep freeze is beginning to thaw elsewhere in Europe, with Austria opening small shops this week and Danish day cares and grade schools reopening.
- Italy and Spain, among Europe's hardest-hit countries, are slowly adding to the categories of shops and industries allowed to operate, though school closures and social distancing rules remain in effect.
- German car dealers and bookshops will reopen on Monday, though beauty salons will wait until May 4 and restaurants possibly much longer. Religious services and other large events won’t return until Aug. 31.
- France will remain under strict lockdown until May 11 while the government builds up testing capacity and medical supplies, after which schools and businesses will gradually reopen.
The coronavirus crisis has imbued governments with authority they never sought — to shutter businesses and keep their citizens at home.
- Now they must decide how many lives they're prepared to lose to prevent deeper economic devastation.
The price of life
While it might not be ethically or politically feasible to put a price on life, "governments do it all the time," de Neve says.
- The U.K. Treasury's Green Book pegs the value of one life saved at £60,000 ($74,670).
But, but, but: There's more to consider than simply lives lost to COVID-19 vs. GDP lost due to lockdowns.
- On the one hand: Job losses are terrible not only for the economy but for well-being generally. Isolation can lead to suicides. Early indications suggest domestic violence and substance abuse are rising. School closures exacerbate inequality.
- On the other: Road accidents and air pollution, which both kill thousands annually, have fallen sharply. People are spending less time commuting and more with their families. One life saved touches many others.
Where things stand: The coronavirus pandemic caused an unprecedented drop in self-reported happiness in the U.K., but the decline leveled off once the government put forward a clear plan.
- Polls suggest the lockdown currently has widespread support.
- de Neve's data suggests that life satisfaction has declined across the board from before the pandemic, but more so for those under 35 than people over 60.
What to watch: He anticipates a point at which an extended lockdown would cause discontent to rise and trust in government to fall — particularly for younger people, who are least vulnerable to the virus but among the most impacted by the lockdown.
- “I think if there’s one lesson to be learned from this, it would be to release it first for the young,” de Neve says. He cites a proposal from researchers at Warwick University to lift restrictions first for 20- to 30-year-olds who don’t live with their parents.
- That would surely meet with substantial pushback. So would plans to start with regions where the risk is lower.
- “It would be impossible to sustain here if there were images of people going back to pubs in other parts of the country,” Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told the BBC.
Testing the exits
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that the thinnest of margins — an infection rate of 1.0 vs. 1.2 — will determine whether Germany’s outbreak remains manageable or outstrips hospital capacity and forces a new clampdown.
Why it matters: The key to reopening economies will therefore be to quickly identify and isolate those who are exposed to the virus.
1. Some epidemiologists have proposed intense testing campaigns in which most of the population — even those who don’t have symptoms — are tested as often as once a week.
- But even Germany, which has Europe's greatest testing capacity, is testing roughly 0.6% of its population each week.
2. Antibody tests could be used to pinpoint those who have recovered.
- Such tests are currently coming on line and, if accurate, would, in theory, allow large numbers of people to move about the world without risk or restrictions.
- But it remains unclear how long the antibodies last and whether they provide complete immunity.
3. Contact tracing in Europe lags behind countries like South Korea, where cellphone data is used to locate and then isolate those who recently interacted with anyone who tests positive.
- That approach has been considered but not rolled out in western European countries, due in part to concerns over data privacy.
- Effective contact tracing will likely require not only increased testing capacities but thousands of workers to trace contacts.
4. Governments are also reserving the right to tighten lockdowns again if caseloads rise, as Singapore recently did.
- Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist leading Sweden’s strategy, believes that could prove fatal for public trust.
- “Can you really go back? What does your population think if you open the schools one week and then close them the next week,” he asked in a discussion Wednesday hosted by the German Marshall Fund.
The other side of lockdown
If European countries are able to ease out of lockdown into some sort of equilibrium, it might look quite a bit like Sweden does now.
Zoom in: Sweden did not impose a lockdown, making it virtually unique within Europe.
- Students 16 and under remain in school, restaurants are open for table service (bar seating is prohibited), and gatherings of up to 50 people are permitted.
- Swedes were discouraged from traveling over the Easter holiday, and many work from home if able, but daily life is far less constrained than elsewhere.
While Sweden has suffered far more deaths than its Nordic neighbors (1,203, compared to 143 in Norway), Tegnell says that's because of a high number of deaths in nursing homes.
- Beyond that failing, he says, the spread has been well-contained through the voluntary self-isolation of people who experience symptoms.
- While the approach has been criticized by some top scientists, it remains highly popular with the public.
The bottom line: “We do believe that the main difference between our policy and many other countries’ policies is that they are sustainable," Tegnell says, noting that "the virus will be with us for a long time."
- "We could easily keep on having these kinds of policies in place for months or maybe even years without having any real damage to society or our economic system.”
The fog of war
French President Emmanuel Macron has shown uncharacteristic humility this week, acknowledging personal "failings" as he extended France's lockdown for four weeks.
Flashback: Macron previously portrayed himself as the commanding general in a "war" against the virus.
- But he acknowledged in Monday's national address that "the epidemic is not under control."
Macron has also spent his presidency calling for a strong, unified Europe.
- But in an interview published Thursday by the FT, he acknowledged that vision could ultimately be undermined during and after the pandemic — by authoritarians, cynics and selfishness from wealthier countries.
“We are at a moment of truth, which is to decide whether the European Union is a political project or just a market project. I think it’s a political project. ... We need financial transfers and solidarity, if only so that Europe holds on."— Emmanuel Macron
What to watch: Macron is still bursting with plans and ambitions. He wants Europe to help Africa cope with the virus and to use the lessons from the pandemic to fight climate change.
- But for all the hope of collective action, European countries will be exiting lockdowns as they entered them — on their own, with the world watching.
The bottom line: “I don’t know if we are at the beginning or the middle of this crisis," Macron acknowledged. "No one knows."