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 today 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.
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 bottom line: 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.