More and more countries have opted to combat the coronavirus by imposing unprecedented restrictions on social and professional activities for entire populations. Initially, many governments were reluctant to follow the harsh Chinese methods, which now seem to have succeeded in bringing the epidemic, in China at least, to a standstill.
The UK and India have announced strict lockdowns, France’s Prime Minister has tightened week-old restrictions, the Netherlands have extended a ban on gatherings of more than three people until June, while Italy and Spain struggle, without much success, to impose total restrictions.
Meanwhile, Singapore and South Korea are meticulously trying to track anybody who is potentially infected.
Sweden is taking a softer line, keeping primary schools, restaurants and bars open, and even encouraging people to go outside for a nip of air, the US still hesitates as to how to approach the crisis and the United Nations Security Council is unable to decide on a common global response.
But in general, more and more countries are opting for a Chinese-style “total lockdown”.
Analysts see three possible scenarios in dealing with the current crisis: “herd immunity,” “track and trace,” and “total lockdown.”
In the first scenario, aimed at creating a large immune population, “you’re going to let the virus run entirely and then ultimately the virus will slow down at the point that it is has infected a very large segment of the population so that it starts to slow its spread,” says John Daley, Chief Executive of the Grattan Institute, , a Melbourne-based policy think tank.
That was roughly the strategy of the UK government up until a week or so ago, but then UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson, shocked by the exploding figures, changed his mind, announced a strict lockdown on Monday, enforced by the police, with a ban on gatherings of more than two people and strict limits on out-of-home exercise, telling the British people “you must stay at home.”
Initially the Netherlands opted for the “herd community” scenario as well, when Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that “a lot of people will get ill,” but “with minor symptoms,” while the government concentrates on “postponing the peak of the infection curve” so as to avoid overcrowding the hospitals.
But, like Johnson, Rutte seemed to have changed his mind after many disregarded the more flexible guidelines, and Dutch infection and death statistics shot up to the point that The Netherlands now ranks fourth on a global scale in terms of casualties per million inhabitants.
The problem with the “herd immunity” scenario, according to John Daley of the Grattan Institute, “is that that it can go on quite a while before things get back to normal, because you can’t guarantee how long it will take.” He also says that the more you “flatten the curve” by reducing the number of infected people, the longer the epidemic is likely to last.
Track and Trace
Another scenario works only in relatively small and isolated areas. “You basically look around at any infection you can find, work backwards to find out who were all people they had been in contact with, test them, and if they test positive, isolate them.”
It works in Tasmania, Singapore, and, to a certain extent, in South Korea, whose only border is with its northern brother, and hermetically closed.
“It makes no sense for France or the UK, where you have hundreds of thousands of new cases per day, there is just no way that you are going to be able to track and trace them,” says Daley.
“Total lockdown” is the method preferred by the Chinese, and successfully implemented in Hubei province and its capital Wuhan.
“You are going to try and get the infection rate below 1,” meaning that instead of one person infecting an average of 2,5 people, which happens if you have no controls in place, “you aim at them infecting fewer than one other person on average.” The result, if the method is applied rigorously, is a rapid decline in the number of infections, which can then be controlled using the “track and trace” method.
What happens next?
Once the pandemic is brought under control, the question will arise for some governments of keeping certain crisis regulations in place?
“In many countries the powers that you need to do this are already on the statute books under emergency legislation,” says Daley. “Most countries have some kind of legislative framework to declare a state of emergency, the current situation legitimately qualifies as one of those.
“There is always a risk that the state of emergency is not lifted, once the crisis passes, but I don’t think that is a huge risk in established democracies,” he says.
But in some younger democracies the government may attempt to use the current health crisis to extend emergency powers indefinitely.
On Monday, the government in Hungary attempted to fast-track a bill through parliament which would give the executive sweeping new powers, including the right to extend the state of emergency declared to fight the coronavirus.
The bill, proposed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing nationalist government, would enable the administration to indefinitely extend the state of emergency and its associated powers of rule by decree, removing the current requirement for MPs to approve any extension.
But the opposition socialist MSZP party and their allies said the proposed law would “expose Hungary and Hungarians to the whims of Viktor Orban indefinitely,” and managed to halt the legislation.
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