After months of imposing strict restrictions or lockdown rules, many countries across the world have started easing these control measures. What has this meant at a global level?
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Over the past couple of months or so, at different paces, states in the United States and countries across Europe and Asia have been gradually easing lockdown measures.
But some regions are facing rising cases of COVID-19, which has made segments of the public and some officials question the wisdom of relaxing restrictions.
At the same time, parts of Australia and many South American countries have had to enforce stricter rules again after a steep rise in coronavirus infections following an initial relaxation of lockdown measures.
All over the world, there are heated debates around the legitimacy of loosening or maintaining restrictive rules.
Even the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has recently expressed concern about the actions that some countries have taken in easing restrictions.
“Let me [be] blunt,” he said in the briefing. “Too many countries are headed in the wrong direction. The virus remains public enemy number one, but the actions of many governments and people do not reflect this.”
“Mixed messages from leaders are undermining the most critical ingredient of any response: trust,” he went on to warn.
So what is the situation like around the world? In this Special Feature, we offer an overview of how — and whether — lockdown measures are easing around the world.
We have also asked readers and contributors to weigh in and say how they feel about life after lockdown.
It was a little over 4 months ago that the WHO
In the U.S., some states started easing restrictive measures back in April. But while some regions are witnessing a steady improvement in coronavirus case rates, others face an increase in numbers that may lead to the implementation of stricter regulations once again.
States such as Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont are doing better, possibly thanks to the fact that they have stuck to strategies such as asking residents to wear face coverings in public, encouraging continued work-from-home policies, or having strict quarantine or self-isolation rules for those traveling in and out of the state.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio reported on July 13 that the city — which the coronavirus hit hard — had had its first 24-hour period with no coronavirus deaths.
Yet July 16 proved to be a record day for the U.S., and not in a good way. Some data suggested that the country had more than 77,000 new cases of COVID-19, the highest number of cases that it has witnessed to date.
Thus, while most states had made plans to reopen businesses, and the Department of Defense had started approving some travel between states, and even internationally, tensions are now on the rise again.
State governors and mayors are often at odds when it comes to imposing or maintaining the rules on face coverings, with some cases even reaching the courts of law. Recently, Georgia governor Brian Kemp sued the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, for insisting on enforcing face coverings even as the governor sought to make these optional for the public.
In Latin America, many countries are battling a rising number of coronavirus cases and have started reinforcing stricter lockdown measures.
For example, the president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, extended and tightened nationwide quarantine rules until July 17, after a surge in COVID-19 cases.
And in Brazil, the Latin American country worst hit by the coronavirus, the government has allowed businesses to reopen gradually, despite the still-growing number of cases. Even the president recently tested positive for COVID-19.
European countries are steadily opening up businesses and lifting travel restrictions, though spikes in COVID-19 cases continue to occur at the local level.
Italy had already started opening businesses in May and continues to relax restrictions, while Spain is gradually easing lockdown at a national level, though some regional restrictions persist.
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been announcing a gradual relaxation of restrictions throughout July, with businesses opening in phases and the removal of self-isolation requirements for those traveling to the U.K. from several European countries.
Asian countries have also gradually been easing restrictions since June. However, China has placed some neighborhoods in Beijing into lockdown once again, after the authorities reported some spikes in COVID-19 cases in parts of the capital.
South Korea has removed some restrictions, though citizens are still required to maintain physical distancing practices, and Japan, which did not have a full lockdown phase, has only asked a few businesses to remain closed, although there have been reports of spikes in COVID-19 cases in the capital.
Australia faces a similar situation. While the country had been gradually relaxing restrictions since May, a recent spike in COVID-19 cases has meant that Melbourne and Mitchell have reentered lockdown.
Media reports suggest that this has made Australians anxious and worried about what the future might hold.
“I think people are definitely more scared this time. People are acting more erratic — you can see that on the roads, at the shops,” one Australian told the BBC.
The mix of good and bad news about the pandemic has divided opinions about countries’ different plans to ease restrictions — or lack thereof.
On social media, Medical News Today readers indicated divergent opinions when we asked how they felt about the relaxation of lockdown measures around the world.
“Cases are spiking. Yay for not feeling safe reopening my business even though I am legally allowed to. I felt safer and less anxious when the state was closed,” one reader commented.
Another reader, however, felt that lockdown had not served a legitimate purpose. “Lockdown was to damage and control people,” this reader wrote.
Many told MNT that they feared that a relaxation of restrictions had come too soon in their countries or states, leading to worries about further spikes in COVID-19 case numbers. Yet others expressed an eagerness for things to get back to a prepandemic normal as soon as possible.
Some commented that they were happy for some restrictions to ease, as long as some extra safety rules remain in place.
“Let’s get back to normal, but with more hand washing, no touching faces, and covering mouths when you sneeze or cough. And if you are sick, stay home,” one MNT reader said.
Contributors whom MNT interviewed also suggested that, despite a relaxation of control measures in the countries where they live, they did not feel as though their life had gone back to “normal.” Nor were they confident that they would get a sense of normalcy any time soon.
“For now, it’s still pretty much like the lockdown for me, in the sense that I’m still not going out as often as before. For example, I can’t go to work still, I still have to work from home, our offices are not open yet,” Michael, who lives in the U.K., told MNT.
Lavanya, from India, also confessed that she was “[n]ot relieved at all” that her country was lifting some restrictions.
“Lifting lockdown doesn’t mean I can let my guard down. It means I’ve [got] to be more cautious, even if I’m wearing a mask and maintaining distance,” she said.
“I also get anxious when I see people not wearing their masks properly or diligently. I feel some people have a casual approach to COVID-19 — a reflection of, perhaps, their belief that ‘This won’t happen to me.'”
– Lavanya, India
Some contributors have pointed out that the “new normal” of taking extra prevention measures when out and about has unintended consequences, too.
For example, Adam from the U.K., who has hearing loss, said that while he is convinced that continuing to use face coverings in public is important in curbing the spread of the new coronavirus, this can create some practical obstacles for him.
“There is no longer a normal for me, as masks mean I can’t lip read, and it all happened less than a year after [my getting] hearing aids,” he told us.
Nevertheless, he insisted that there was an upside to this situation: “I think the good side of it is it means you really have to pick and choose the activities you stick with that make you happy. I loved doing and seeing gigs, but now I have to find that nourishment from stuff like reading and cycling.”
But Adam is not alone in his awareness that face masks can be an obstacle for those with hearing loss. Many U.K. advocates and educators have expressed worries, and some charities have even urged the public to adopt face masks with a clear panel that allows lip reading.
Yet other contributors have expressed worries about divergent health and safety advice during the pandemic and as lockdown measures are easing.
Michael, who lives in the U.K. but has family and friends in Eastern Asia, told MNT that he was surprised by the fact that official advice in the U.K. seemed to be less thorough than that given in some Asian countries.
“So you’ve got this pamphlet from the U.K. Government about [how to avoid infection with] the coronavirus. Everyone received it, and then when you turn [the pages], you’ve got six steps [for hand washing practices],” Michael described.
“At the same time, what they have been teaching in Taiwan, which we all know by now has [had] a very successful experience of fighting the coronavirus, is that there are seven steps [for hand washing]. Not six, but seven!”
– Michael, U.K.
“So I don’t know […] why the National Health Service [in the U.K.] only taught six steps when some other countries in the world have been teaching seven steps,” Michael wondered.
“And the step that they’re missing in the U.K. version is that they don’t teach people to wash the wrists. Now, wrists are really important, [since they come into contact with] your sleeves [that] could easily have been in contact with the virus,” he explained.
For many people, regular day-to-day activities have started to feel like negotiating an obstacle course, as they worry about a lack of appropriate health and safety measures in public spaces, such as supermarkets.
“Do I expect life to go back to normal? Not anytime soon,” Lavanya told MNT. “At least, not until we get an approved vaccine.”
“I haven’t stepped out since March (a week before the countrywide lockdown [in India]) unless I need to get groceries or other essentials,” she went on to say. “I time my visits to coincide with when the shops are most likely to be empty.”
“In some ways, it feels like I’m a spy on a mission to get my supplies without getting caught (or catching the virus, rather) — only less thrilling.”
– Lavanya, India
Other contributors also said that despite lockdown measures easing in their countries, they still tend to avoid public spaces, even though they miss regular human contact.
“As for my own lifestyle, I’m still very much keeping [to] staying at home,” Michael admitted. However, he added, “Having said that, I do kind of crave going out once again.”
Recent — and, in some cases, ongoing or reinstated — lockdown measures have seriously affected many people’s mental and physical health, as well as their livelihoods.
The International Monetary Fund have already declared that the pandemic “has pushed the world into a recession,” and this is likely part of the reason why so many countries are fighting to reopen their economy and their borders.
But as doubts about the end of the pandemic remain a current problem, the WHO have continued to advise caution going forward.
“I want to be straight with you: There will be no return to the ‘old normal’ for the foreseeable future,” said the WHO Director-General in his address on July 13.
“But there is a roadmap to a situation where we can control the disease and get on with our lives,” he continued.
“[T]his is going to require three things. First, a focus on reducing mortality and suppressing transmission. Second, an empowered, engaged community that takes individual behavior measures in the interest of each other. And third, we need strong government leadership and coordination of comprehensive strategies that are communicated clearly and consistently.”
– Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus