THE GLOBAL DILEMMA OF FINDING THE RIGHT APPROACH TO EXITING LOCKDOWN

May 15, 2020

Countries all over the world have taken steps to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus pandemic through restrictive lockdown measures over the last two months. At one point, those measures ensnared 3.9 billion citizens globally. With infection rates easing, attention has turned to address the question of how to restore life across over a hundred nations to some semblance of normality without incurring the grim prospect of a second wave of infections.

 But that question doesn’t have a uniform answer.

 Not, at least, if you look at the disparate approaches of individualism and isolationism in almost every single country anyway.

 The question of balancing the need to protect the lives of citizens with restarting a severely-damaged economy has opened the flood gates for a scarcely-believable proliferation in strategies. It seems outrageous at this point to remind you no matter the cultural or political values of a nation, each and every one of them is searching for the same answer.

 All of which begs the follow-up question; is there a “right” approach to this conundrum? Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to say. But trying to be the country to “get it right” shouldn’t be the focus here. The spirit of nations during a global crisis should be one of collaboration and cooperation, not competition.

Why Now is the Time for Unified Approaches (Not Individualism and Isolationism)

 The infighting and squabbling in both America and Europe have typified much of the global response. It appears every country has their unique take on how to best exit their respective lockdowns. But success is going to be found in cohesion and cooperation, rather than individualism.

 This is especially the case in countries that share land borders with as many as nine other countries, as is the case with Germany. By taking a more cohesive and cooperative approach, not only will public health outcomes become better, but trade and commerce will become much less fragmented and staccato in nature, lessening the time to economic recovery.

 In other words, unity and collaboration will give us all the answers we are desperately searching for. While no one can say what the “right” approach is at this precise moment in time, if countries and states align to undertake similar strategies, at least we can collectively learn, adapt, and pool resources toward a better resolution.

 Is There a So-Called “Right” Approach to Exiting Lockdown?

 While we can’t say for sure, there do appear to be strategies that are working better than others. In an ideal world, we would take the approach back to basics, following the lead of our Renaissance and Exploration Age ancestors who also didn’t have the advantage of a vaccine.

 During the Age of European Exploration, ships and their crews would frequently bring back deadly diseases with them. None were more dangerous than the plague outbreaks, which struck Europe on several occasions. It still takes the title of the world’s worst infectious disease, with up to 200 million deaths attributed to the various outbreaks throughout history.

 Known as “The Black Death,” the only option was to quarantine, isolate, and avoid all unnecessary contact with other human beings, in a move that’s not too dissimilar to today’s lockdown. With no recognizable health system, this would remain in place until the disease had ripped through the population (killing millions) and run its course.

 Without a vaccine for COVID-19, that would still present the best solution today. An incredibly strict lockdown that was implemented quickly – and in place for as long as it took for the virus to disappear – would work just as well today as it did in 1347.

 That’s not too dissimilar to the approach the Chinese government took to Wuhan, imposing a four-month-long lockdown that was stricter than that of European counterparts. However, they made one crucial mistake. They lifted the lockdown before the virus was eradicated from the population.

 Why? Economic necessity. The spread of the virus sent the Chinese economy into its first contraction for 28 years, and the central government feared the financial decimation associated with a quarterly fall of more than 10%. Today, China faces the prospect of testing all 11 million inhabitants of Wuhan in an attempt to eradicate the spread of the virus once and for all.

 The problems with implementing such a measure are even less feasible in Western society. Not only would a six-month-long lockdown initiate the worst recession since the onset of industrialization, but today’s Western populations simply wouldn’t allow it. Even with countries that only locked down for six weeks, there were protests, and millions of individuals flagrantly ignored the lockdown rules after they became too much to bear.

 So with the back to basics approach off the table, how should the global community proceed?

 A commonality on the Fundamentals Required to Get the World Back on its Feet

 As the recent Paris Agreement has demonstrated, fostering collective action to a threat faced by every country is challenging at best, impossible at worst. With that in mind, it’s vital to acknowledge that there are going to be differences in each country’s approach because of the specific social, cultural, political, and geographical challenges they face.

 That being said, that doesn’t mean that some fundamentals can’t be agreed so that critical components of economic performance such as trade and tourism can return without bringing a wave of new infections.

 At the moment, the disparate approaches of each country make that impossible. For example, Sweden is operating as if nothing is happening. That means that visitors from Brazil (where COVID-19 is running wild and unchecked by the actions of the central government) can still freely visit and spread the virus further, undermining the efforts of other countries.

 A common-sense approach is required here. In that regard, what makes the most sense is adopting at least some of the measures underpinning successful virus responses. South Korea and Germany appear to lead the way concerning countries that have experienced outbreaks requiring a national mobilization (more than 10,000 cases).

 What’s interesting is that the core tenets of their approaches are the same. Common to both responses are widespread testing combined with extensive contact tracing to quarantine and self-isolate anyone who came into contact with the virus. In the case of regional flare-ups, a complete lockdown is implemented, as was the case for a recent flare-up in a Seoul nightclub district.

 Once more, enforcing the wearing of facial coverings and masks in public is another recurrent theme in their respective approaches. While the jury is still out on the science relating to the effectiveness of wearing masks, they can’t make the virus worse, and those that have registered the best virus response have all made them compulsory. In the absence of a scientific even remotely big enough to be able to draw reliable conclusions from, this seems like another easy decision.

 When it comes to travel, and in particular aviation, a set of standardized procedures shouldn’t be that difficult to implement as we did as a global community in the wake of 9/11. For instance, even less affluent countries can afford to carry out body temperature checks before allowing entry and exit. More advanced economies can carry out mass temperature readings en masse through surveillance cameras so as not to make lines at airports incredibly arduous.

 With those measures in place, trade and tourism can resume, and there’s enough scope for regional variation should particular measures be too challenging to implement for specific countries. 

Will Countries Ever Achieve a Cohesive Response to Exiting Lockdown? 

 At the moment, it looks as if individualism and isolationism misalignment will prevent that outcome from ever coming to fruition. Leaving political and cultural differences in North America and Europe aside for a moment, even in Asia, China wouldn’t dare to risk losing face by adopting elements of an approach championed by a so-called “lesser” country such as South Korea.

 The only way to find the new normal is by individual countries setting aside their pride and working together to fight a common enemy. With the situation remaining as it is, there’s no foreseeable path to resuming global trade and tourism, and by association, the global economy.

 History has shown us that pursuing policies of isolationism and individualism during times of crisis have never worked; it’s time for world leaders to remind themselves of that fact.

 

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