As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the world at different rates, some countries have begun considering lifting lockdown measures despite a risk of a resurgence of the deadly virus within their borders.
Other countries, including China, Spain, and South Korea, have also reported a decline in cases, prompting optimism that the disease can be mitigated through social distancing.
China, the former epicenter of the disease, has been gradually trying to lift its strict coronavirus lockdown in recent weeks, reopening shops, bars, and cinemas after months of closure. Its coronavirus peak came in mid-February, when close to 780 million people were under some form of travel restriction or quarantine order.
Masked tourists pack into the West Lake park in Hangzhou in east China’s Zhejiang province Sunday, April 05, 2020.
Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Denmark, too, has seen the number of its coronavirus cases downturn in recent weeks, encouraging Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to propose gradually lifting lockdown measures in the country after Easter.
“Over the past week the number of hospital admissions has risen slightly slower than the week before and without the explosion in the numbers that we have seen in other countries,” Frederiksen told reporters on March 30.
“If we over the next two weeks across Easter keep standing together by staying apart, and if the numbers remain stable for the next two weeks, then the government will begin a gradual, quiet, and controlled opening of our society again, at the other side of Easter.”
The lifting of restrictions would likely include people slowly returning to work and school while limits on social gatherings remain, she said.
On April 6, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz presented what he called a “cautious plan” on how to revive business in the country.
“Austria has reacted faster and more restrictively than other countries,” he said in a press release. “So we have been able to prevent the worst from happening. This circumstance now gives us the opportunity to get out of this crisis faster, but only if we all continue to consistently adhere to the measures.”
“Easter week will be a crucial week for us and will determine whether the resurrection after Easter, which we all wish so much for, can take place,” he added.
As part of the plan, small shops and garden and craft centers will be allowed to reopen from April 14. Kurz said he hoped that all other shops and centers will reopen from May 1 “under special protective measures.”
Italy may also be close to lifting its coronavirus restrictions. Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera said on April 6 that some businesses in the country may be allowed to reopen as early as mid-April, and that lifting of some travel restrictions could come in May.
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy empty under lockdown on March 10, 2020.
Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters
But despite renewed confidence about stopping the disease spread, experts have warned that lifting restrictions too early may lead to a “second wave of infections” in countries that gained an upper hand on the disease.
“There are huge and complex tradeoffs between health and the economy,” said Nick Wilson, a professor at the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “And some business people possibly think that it is better to keep the economy functioning at a higher level — even if it might mean a large death toll.”
Minh Cuong Duong, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said that the leadership of Austria and Denmark are eager to return their societies to “normal public life.”
“I think the governments want to address the community concern about returning to normal public life and alleviate the social and economic impact of lockdown,” Duong said.
She emphasized that the decision to reopen industries was “a careful, step-by-step resurrection” based on “positive signs” from weeks of strict lockdown measures.
“Lockdown itself helps slow down the spread of COVID-19 and thus allows more time to prepare and set up other control measures to stop transmission and reduce new cases and mortality such as screening, contact tracing, quarantining of suspected cases, and managing infected cases,” Duong said.
“Once these things are in place, lifting lockdown is reliable.”
Still, experts agree that despite the prospect of economic gains, lifting lockdown without heightened precautions could result in a surge of cases worse than before.
“If they ease up on the lockdown … then the risk is they end up like Italy and Spain and New York City with overloaded hospitals and critical care facilities,” said Wilson, the professor in New Zealand.
“Lockdowns give time to prepare such facilities and for new treatments to become available.”
Dr. David Muscatello, a senior lecturer at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, said it is difficult to predict whether easing coronavirus restrictions at this stage would help.
“If the restrictions are as successful as they seem to be in controlling transmission of the virus,” he said, “then there will remain many people who are susceptible to infection by the coronavirus. The epidemic could flare up, and this could have even more severe consequences, particularly to people’s health and to the health system.”