The resurgence of the coronavirus in Europe has reignited fears that governments will have to lock down their economies again in the autumn. Some political leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron of France, have rushed to dismiss this possibility, saying the collateral damage from a new bout of confinement would just be too high.
Europe’s second wave of Covid-19 is certainly different — and, so far, less alarming — than the first. There is plenty that politicians and the general public can do to avoid a return to the most draconian measures of March, April and May. Localized lockdowns have been effective in particular towns or regions that suffer sudden infection spikes.
However, it’s impossible to rule out a new round of generalized isolation. A full shutdown isn’t an optional policy, but a last resort against the epidemic should it spiral out of control again. As we saw in the springtime, tens of thousands of deaths and overwhelmed hospitals are not politically acceptable in most countries. We’ve yet to see what will happen in the colder months, when more people are forced inside and governments try to keep workplaces and schools open.
After a quiet start to the summer, Europe is experiencing a sharp rise in cases. Spain and France have registered more than 3,000 and 4,000 new infections per day respectively, and Germany and Italy are seeing more cases too. The pressure on hospitals remains manageable, but it’s slowly increasing. Public-health officials, who are generally working hard to trace the contacts of those who test positive, face an increasingly difficult job.
There’s no doubt this phase of the virus is unlike the first. Many more people are being tested and the percentage of those who test positive is significantly lower. In Italy it is barely above 1%; in March it was regularly in excess of 20%. There’s a much higher proportion of people with few or no symptoms. This means that the number of counted cases is much closer to the “real” figure than it was a few months ago. Back then, most of the testing was of people with severe symptoms, meaning the scale of contagion was inevitably much larger.
Moreover, governments have designed better tools to keep the situation in check. For a start, they can seek to circumscribe the outbreak actively via contact tracing. They can also rely on more help from the public. While there’s growing evidence of “distancing fatigue,” where people are letting their guard down by not wearing masks and ignoring guidelines on socializing, the severity of the first outbreak is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Finally, doctors have got better at treating Covid-19 patients, even though there’s no definitive cure yet.
This explains why Macron and others believe they can avoid another full economic lockdown. Of course, there will be sacrifices: It’s unlikely that governments will permit events with large crowds, or the reopening of nightclubs. There are also fears over how students will be allowed back into schools and universities, given the potential for widespread contact and evidence that youngsters can carry a similar load of the virus as their parents. But relying on smart, localized lockdowns, as Macron aspires to do, is indeed the ideal course of action. It would help avoid the calamitous economic and psychological costs of a second generalized lockdown.
However, politicians cannot simply wish away a strategy of confinement. Countries such as Italy, Spain and Britain had to force people to stay home because the pandemic was out of control and their health systems were overwhelmed. There were simply not enough hospital beds and intensive care units to deal with the severe cases. Prioritizing Covid patients also had a dramatic impact on the lives of those who needed treatment for other diseases, such as cancer, who often couldn’t receive adequate help.
It’s also difficult to avoid the financial consequences of a raging pandemic, even if you keep the economy open. As people become scared, they avoid shops, restaurants and hotels. Sweden didn’t introduce a hard lockdown in the spring, but its gross domestic product contracted more in the second quarter than neighboring Nordic states that imposed harsher measures.
Handling the pandemic will require a “hammer and dance” strategy, in which governments have to impose a strict confinement strategy (the “hammer”) and then lift it while keeping the pandemic in check (the “dance”). The hope is that the enforcement of more severe restrictions can be limited to selective closures of affected regions, or certain activities. But it’s foolish to rule out wider interventions; we simply don’t know how the epidemic will evolve. Governments should prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.