The World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday that rushing to ease coronavirus restrictions would likely lead to a resurgence of the illness as governments in Europe began rolling out plans to lift quarantine measures to get their economies up and running again.
“This is not the time to be lax. Instead, we need to ready ourselves for a new way of living for the foreseeable future,” said Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the WHO regional director for the Western Pacific.
He said governments must remain vigilant to stop the spread of the virus and the lifting of lockdowns and other social distancing measures must be done gradually and strike the right balance between keeping people healthy and allowing economies to function.
“As we move forward in this difficult time, our lives, our health system and approach to stopping transmission must continue to adapt and evolve along with the epidemic, at least until a vaccine or very effective treatment is found. This process will need to become our new normal,” Kasai said.
Kasai’s warning came a day after Germans returned to the shops after a month of lockdown. Shops up to 800 square metres, as well as car and bicycle dealers and bookstores, were allowed to reopen on Monday under an agreement with the leaders of Germany’s 16 states, all keen to start the long haul of pulling the economy out of recession. Schools are set to begin reopening in two weeks.
'We need life again'
Europe’s largest economy has relied more on domestic demand in recent years as the strength of its traditional export engine has faded, and the move echoes a slow easing in neighbouring countries, equally desperate to revive business and society.
“We need life again. This whole time it was like a ghost town,” said Michaela Frieser, not wearing a face mask, in Frankfurt’s main shopping district. “The sun’s out, we saved enough money and now we need to go out and spend it!”
Isabel Pennekamp, shopping in the German city of Cologne, was grateful that parts of the country reopened small stores.
“Well, I think it’s good, because now people can get out a bit more and normality is a bit more possible again,” she said.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the gradual easing “is a step-by-step process where, after time, we will evaluate what consequences it has had for the infection".
Federal and state governments have strongly recommended that Germans wear face masks when shopping and on public transport, and some states have even made that compulsory.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told officials from her Christian Democrats (CDU) party that the danger of infection remained high in Germany. She told reporters it would take 14 days to see if the easing was pushing up the infection rate, adding: “We must remain vigilant and disciplined.”
There is still a risk that contagion could surge and then restrictions would have to be tightened again, Merkel said.
Germany has the fifth-highest Covid-19 caseload – behind the United States, Spain, Italy and France – but has kept fatalities down thanks to early and extensive testing.
Danes head back to hair salons
In line with Germany, Luxembourg has similarly decided that a selection of stores could reopen and that some schools would begin reopening from May 4. But when all schools reopen, classes will be split into two halves that each alternate between a week in school and a week studying at home.
France on Monday eased restrictions on visits to nursing homes, which had been banned since March 17, while Denmark allowed hair salons, dentists, physiotherapists and tattoo parlors to reopen for business.
In Austria, DIY stores, garden centres and smaller shops have also opened their doors, and the government has announced plans for museums and libraries to follow from mid-May.
Norway, meanwhile, has reopened nurseries and pre-schools, with authorities saying the move is safe because children have been less affected by Covid-19.
Around the globe, the game plan is to open up but maintain enough social distancing to prevent new flareups of the virus that has infected 2.4 million people worldwide, killed more than 165,000 and crippled the world economy.
The easing of the lockdowns "is not the end of the epidemic in any country. It’s just the beginning of the next phase,″ the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told G-20 health ministers in an online meeting on Monday.
He sternly warned governments not to rush to return to normal, saying: “It is critical that these measures are a phased process.”
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)