'No fast way back to normal': How some European lockdowns are easing already
Canadians can look to Europe for flickering signs of hope after weeks of shutdowns and being locked at home.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reluctant to publicly talk in detail about lifting emergency measures put in place to reduce COVID-19 transmission, results elsewhere are being closely monitored by Canadian leaders.
German and Danish school children are returning to classes, and Lithuania is allowing small shops to reopen. Even countries devastated by COVID-19 novel respiratory disease are taking steps to ease lockdowns. Italy is reopening some businesses, including bookstores and children's clothing stores, and Spain has allowed construction and factory workers to return to their jobs.
Around the world, leaders are negotiating a fraught and potentially treacherous balancing act pitting economic and social imperatives against public health, while facing the reality that no vaccine for this coronavirus is expected for at least a year and the widespread testing that health officials say is key to controlling transmission is slow and cumbersome to implement.
Lockdowns have flattened the curve and kept many health care systems from being overwhelmed, they have had a serious effect on the global economy. The International Monetary Fund expects a 3 per cent shrink in 2020, erasing $9 trillion in economic activity. That would surpass the devastation of the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
The IMF says Canada will be hit hard, predicting a 6.2 per cent economic hit.
Germany is already in recession and in the U.S., industrial output fell 6.3 per cent, the largest decline in seven decades. Canada's economy shrank by an estimated 9 per cent in March, according to Statistics Canada. It was the steepest one-month retraction since 1961, when such records began.
There are also fears of the toll of extended periods of isolation on mental health and education among vulnerable groups, but they come amid warnings from medical experts that easing restrictions too quickly and without proper surveillance of results could lead to a deadly spike in cases of the virus.
Europe's COVID-19 exit strategy will provide valuable lessons to North America. Europe's confirmed cases is rapidly nearing a million.
"We remain in the eye of the storm," said Hans Kluge, the director for the World Health Organization's European region, at a Thursday a press conference. "There is no fast way back to normal."
Earlier this week, the WHO issued a six-point checklist for countries considering lifting of restrictions: COVID-19 transmission must be controlled; health systems must be capable of detecting, testing, isolating and treating every case, along with tracing every contact; outbreak risks in vulnerable settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes must be minimized; schools and workplaces must have preventive measures in place; importation risks must be managed; and they must fully educate, engage and empower communities to adjust to the "new norm" of everyday life.
"One of the main things we've learned in the past months about COVID-19 is that the faster all cases are found, tested, isolated & cared for, the harder we make it for the virus to spread," the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote on Twitter. "This principle will save lives & mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic."
On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump rolled out a three-phase road map for governors to restore economic activity and reopen schools, while acknowledging those decisions rest at the state level, a reversal of his previous admonition that he was in charge of restoring activity.
The plan acknowledges that the virus has taken a vastly different toll across the country and comes against a backdrop of a tug-of-war in the highly divided nation between those protesting that emergency measures are too restrictive and will be economically devastating, and those fearful that lifting lockdowns will cause a surge in COVID-19 cases.
The U.S. has the highest global number of cases at more than 670,000 and has recorded close to 35,000 deaths. It has also seen at least 22 million people lose their jobs.
Britain, also extremely hard hit by the pandemic, announced Thursday that a lockdown imposed on March 23 will remain in place until at least May 7.
As in much of Canada, schools, non-essential workplaces, stores, restaurants and bars are all closed, and people are only allowed to leave home for essential errands, medical appointments or exercise.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is standing in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from COVID-19, said at a news conference that too many sacrifices had been made to ease up now.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel, but now we are at both a delicate and dangerous stage in this pandemic."
It's believed the burden of the virus is levelling off in the U.K., where close to 14,000 people had died in hospitals alone as of Thursday, but medical officials are warning lifting restrictions too early risks a second peak of the virus.
Italy, which has suffered the second-highest number of deaths due to COVID-19 after the U.S, but with less than one-fifth its population, began easing some lockdown measures on April 14. It was the first to go into lockdown in Europe, but has been seeing declines in new daily cases, though the death toll has remained high.
As part of its plan to slowly lift lockdown measures, customers in reopened businesses –– which include bookstores, laundries, stationery stores, and children's clothing shops – must wear masks and gloves and businesses are responsible for enforcing social distancing and sanitizing shops twice daily. Italy has also given the greenlight to some manufacturing activity.
Much of Italy's lockdown measures will stay in place until at least May 3 and some regional leaders, including in the area around Rome and hard-hit areas of the north, have extended closures beyond that date.
In France, leaders extended lockdown rules imposed on March 17 for four more weeks, but a plan is in place to begin opening schools on May 11. The country's restaurants and cafes will remain closed and public gatherings are prohibited until mid-July, at least.
President Emmanuel Macron told his citizens in a televised address on April 13 that easing restrictions will be "progressive" and that rules would be adapted according to results.
Growth of new cases has slowed in France, which has coped with nearly 146,000 cases and almost 18,000 deaths. Macron said in his address that the "epidemic is not under control."
In Germany, students will gradually return to school beginning May 4, beginning with the youngest children and with studies focused on core subjects. Some stores will be allowed to reopen starting April 20, but strict rules around social distancing and disinfection measures will be in place. The country has banned large gatherings until the end of August and is urging residents to wear masks while out in public.
"We have to proceed with extreme caution," Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin on April 15. She added that Germany is "walking on thin ice."
Spain eased some restrictions on non-essential employment this week, allowing industries such as construction to resume. It's estimated that about 300,000 in the area around Madrid returned to work and police were issuing face masks to those commuting.
Bars and restaurants and non-essential stores remain closed and the general lockdown remains in place until at least April 26. Some of Spain's regional leaders have criticized the lifting of any lockdown measures and the country's health minister acknowledged the virus' trajectory has not entered a "de-escalation phase yet."
The country has been in lockdown since March 15 and its health-care system was bent under the weight of the second-highest number of cases worldwide at close to 185,000 and a fatality rate of more than 10 per cent. Spain has also suffered the highest reported COVID-19 infections among doctors amid a shortage of personal protective equipment.
Switzerland, which has confirmed 27,078 cases and 1,318 deaths, announced Thursday that it would begin to ease its lockdown beginning April 27 over three phases. In the first phase, hairdressers, massage and tattoo salons, DIY stores and garden centres can reopen, and hospitals can begin conducting non-urgent procedures, and doctor and dentist practices can resume.
"We want to proceed as swiftly as possible and as slowly as necessary," he said. "We have to avoid a stop-and-go policy," a Swiss news outlet reported Interior Minister Alain Berset as saying.
Children are expected to return to school beginning May 11, but the government said it will confirm at the end of the month whether phase two will begin as scheduled.
Starting June 8, higher-education establishments, museums, zoos and libraries will be open. While prohibitions on gatherings of more than five people remain in place, the government says it's considering future options for organizers of mass events, such as music festivals, sports competitions and political rallies.
Czech Republic, which declared a state of emergency March 14 and immediately required citizens to cover their faces when leaving their homes, is now lifting some measures. Hardware stores and bicycle shops have reopened, along with outdoor sports facilities. Elementary school children will slowly return to school.
The country has also announced it will allow restaurants, pubs, salons and galleries with outdoor spaces to reopen by May 25 and that all retail stores, restaurants and hotels will be running by June 8.
Austria has allowed small stores, hardware and garden centres to open, but customers must wear masks and maintain a two-metre distance from others. The government initiated a strict lockdown on its close-to 9 million residents on March 16, a week before similar measures in the U.K. Police patrolled streets and parks and more than 17,000 tickets were issued to those breaking the rules.
At that time, the number of infections was doubling every three days in Austria, but that has slowed to about every two weeks. The country's health care system maintained capacity, with a reported 410 coronavirus deaths and about 14,500 cases.
Beginning May 1, all stores, shopping centres and hairdressers will open, and restaurants and hotels will be permitted to reopen sometime in mid-May.
Denmark says its latest new case numbers show a lower number than expected. The country, which has almost 7,100 confirmed cases and 336 deaths, has reopened its schools to nursery school, kindergarten and primary students and some churches hosted Easter services. Middle school and high school students will return May 10.
Schools must ensure a distance of about two metres is maintained between desks in classrooms and breaks must only include small groups of children.
The government has extended a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people until May 10 and said churches, cinemas and shopping centres would remain closed.
Denmark is now considering reopening businesses like restaurants and hairdressers, but large gatherings and festivals remain prohibited until the end of August.
Elsewhere, Norway (6,937 cases and 158 deaths) is prioritizing the reopening of schools beginning April 20.
Belgium, with more than 36,000 cases and 5,163 deaths, extended its stay-at-home order until at least May 3 and banned mass gatherings until the end of August.
Greece (2,207 cases and 105 deaths) remains in lockdown, too, with traditional Orthodox Easter celebrations this weekend being broadcast and streamed from closed churches.