Several European, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries have started to lift some restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus. Spain, for instance, allowed its factory and construction workers to return to their jobs. Switzerland set a three-stage plan to gradually reopen schools and businesses, while Italy reopened shops selling books, stationery, and clothing for babies and children.
However, health experts have warned of a potential second wave of infections unless testing is expanded dramatically and a vaccine is available. The pressure to reopen businesses has been louder than ever as weeks-long shutdowns plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930s and wiped out millions of jobs. The concern and fear have only grown following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent announcement that we may never be rid of COVID-19.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergency program, warned that the new disease may join the mix of viruses that kill people around the world every year. "This virus just may become another endemic virus in our communities and this virus may never go away. HIV hasn't gone away. I'm not comparing the two diseases but I think it is important that we're realistic. I don't think anyone can predict when or if this disease will disappear,” Ryan said.
According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, Ryan added how we have come into terms with HIV and found therapies and prevention methods to help those infected by the virus. The good thing is that multiple teams of scientists across the world are still currently trying to develop a viable coronavirus vaccine.
"We may have a shot at eliminating this virus but that vaccine will have to be available, it will have to be highly effective, it will have to be made available to everyone and we'll have to use it. This disease may settle into a long-term problem or it may not,” Ryan said.
With that being said, is it still safe for countries to ease their lockdowns?
Knowing When It’s Safe to Ease Coronavirus Lockdowns
With many governments lifting some restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus, people are starting to become complacent. Many are already planning where they will go after the lockdowns. However, it’s never that easy. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that if restrictions are lifted too soon, the virus could come back in “small waves in various places around the country.”
“Nothing has changed in the underlying dynamics of this virus,” he said.
The WHO officials said that it’s too soon to get back to normal. According to NPR.org, an online site that delivers breaking national and world news, any premature attempts to restart economies could trigger secondary peaks in COVID-19 cases. Thus, the process needs to be deliberate and widely coordinated. "You can't replace lockdown with nothing," Ryan said.
Ryan also emphasized the importance of a well-informed and committed population. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that any government that wants to start lifting restrictions must first meet six conditions: disease transmission is under control; transmission systems are able to "detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact"; hot spot risks are minimized in vulnerable places; schools, workplaces, and other essential places have established preventive measures; the risk of importing new cases "can be managed,” and communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal.
Even if governments can lift some lockdown conditions, the WHO said that health workers still need to continue wearing protective equipment. Intensive care beds should also be on standby in case they see a jump back up in cases. "We don't want to lurch from lockdown to nothing to lockdown to nothing. We need to have a much more stable exit strategy that allows us to move carefully and persistently away from lockdown,” Ryan said.
According to NewScientist, an online site that features daily news articles, feature stories, reviews, and more in all disciplines of science, the WHO also advises that countries continue to use testing and contact tracing to identify and isolate new cases of COVID-19. Easing restrictions without screening and isolation will inevitably lead to the number of new infections rising again. Christina Pagel at University College London said that to ease restrictions, a country’s number of cases also needs to be at a manageable level.
Is It Safe to Ease Up on Social Distancing?
Many people across the world appear to be bending the rules of stay-at-home orders. Research conducted by the University of Maryland found evidence of a decrease in compliance of restrictions in the US after looking into anonymous cellphone location data.
"Aside from quarantine fatigue, in many places, people are getting messages saying that they are successfully flattening the curve and that cases have peaked in their area, so they might question the value of continuing to stay locked down and avoiding seeing other people," Tara Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University in Ohio, said.
Kumi Smith, an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said that early success in some parts of the country has brought a false sense of security. "There is a strange side effect when most people in some places are untouched by this epidemic, meaning they don't know anyone who has had COVID-19 or who has died of the virus. That threat is no longer top of mind," Kumi Smith said.
Experts say that there’s no reason we should immediately ease up on social distancing considering the fact that coronavirus cases are still rising exponentially worldwide. People should continue to wear cloth masks when they expect to have face-to-face conversations or are in closed spaces like stores.
"Even if we relax precautions, we still have a chance for another wave and more lockdowns. Antibody tests suggest even that in New York City, only 20% of people have immunity, meaning we are experiencing nothing close to herd immunity,” Tara Smith said.
Additionally, limiting the number of people you come into contact with is important. "Is it zero risk? No. Every time you introduce a new person into your network, you are at risk of being exposed to everyone that they have been exposed to. But if going on a walk with this person is the thing you need to do to maintain sanity or health, then go for it. Just be sure to minimize risk by keeping a distance while walking and washing your hands when you get home,” she explained.