Europe eases Covid-19 lockdown but caveats remain

European Union unveiled a road map to phase out Covid-19 pandemic containment measures, Brussels, April 15, 2020

A European Union road map plotting the way out of the containment measures to counter Covid-19 — commonly known as ‘lockdown’ — was unveiled in Brussels on Wednesday. The document titled Joint European Roadmap towards lifting COVID-19 containment measures holds much significance for India. 

India followed the European footfalls in opting for a ‘total lockdown’ last month. Italy was the first European country to impose nationwide coronavirus lockdown on March 9. Through the next fortnight, nearly all European countries followed suit. And on March 24, PM Narendra Modi announced a three-week nationwide lockdown, which has since been extended till May 3. 

The European countries are now tiptoeing out of the lockdown. Austria, Denmark, Italy and Spain have relaxed some of the containment measures while Germany and France have announced stage-by-stage reopening plans.  

Modi has hinted at similar approach in India also starting April 20. Conceivably, the EU document will be studied closely, while developing India’s exit strategy. 

The lockdown was considered to be an imperative to ‘flatten the curve’ of the virus infection so that health infrastructure didn’t get overrun. But the EU member states in unison agree that the economic costs and other implications of lockdown outweigh the considerations of public health and well-being, and releasing the lockdown is the right thing to do. 

In India, we are nowhere near a point to claim we have ‘flattened the curve’. In large parts of India, the curve is rising. Equally, it is doubtful if the period of the lockdown has been optimally utilised to build up healthcare facilities to meet with the spike in virus infections that is to be expected once the lockdown is lifted. Besides, one major concern today is about feeding millions of poor people who have been cut adrift, bereft of job and livelihood. 

Europe doesn’t face such a dismal situation. The strength of Europe lies in its social and economic balance. Nonetheless, the EU document also acknowledges that lockdown came at ‘a dramatic cost to people, society and the economy, and cannot last indefinitely.’ To quote the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, ‘it is time to look ahead and to focus on protecting livelihoods… all Europeans rightly ask themselves when and in what order the confinement measures can be lifted.’   

The EU document lays out certain ‘key principles’. One, the timing of the relaxation of lockdown should depend on the following three criteria: 

  • the spread of the infection has significantly decreased and stabilised for a sustained period;
  • sufficient health system capacity has been built up in anticipation of a near-certain ‘second wave’ — in terms of ICUs, availability of health care workers, medical material, etc; and, 
  • large-scale testing, tracking and tracing capacity has been put in place.  

The EU document underscores the criticality of the linkage between the phasing-out of the lockdown and accompanying measures such as developing a ‘robust system of reporting and contact tracing’; expanding the testing capacity; the healthcare infrastructure to handle ‘the predicted rise in infections after lifting restrictive measures’. Nonetheless, the EU document still counsels that the lifting of lockdown should only be gradual and in measured steps ‘with sufficient time left between them to measure the impact.’ 

Second, the road map counsels that ‘total lockdown’ should be replaced by ‘targeted’ lockdown — focusing on protecting the most vulnerable groups for longer period; facilitating the gradual return of necessary economic activities, etc. The EU says a gap of around one month should be left between re-opening steps “as [their] effect can only be measured over time.”

Interestingly, the EU seeks a coordinated lifting of border controls among and between the member states, depending on the epidemiological situation converging sufficiently in the border regions. As for external borders, they should be re-opened only at a second stage depending on the scale of spread of the virus beyond Europe. 

The bottom line is that a likely reversion to total lockdown must be constantly factored in, based on exigencies of the situation. Mass testing and data gathering is at core of EU COVID-19 exit plan. At the heart of the strategy is a plan to reopen businesses gradually while scaling up tracing and testing resources as a way of controlling COVID-19. Special-purpose mobile apps are recommended for tracking the virus. 

The lockdown strategy has slowed the spread of the deadly virus, but at a cost that can’t be sustained indefinitely. Next week, EU leaders will discuss the possibility of creating a European “Marshall Plan”, worth billions of euros, to stimulate economic recovery.

Clearly, there is little comfort in the big picture emerging here. For reasons that can only be called visceral, governments (including Indian) rushed into total lockdown. Herein lies the paradox: the easing of lockdown now will certainly risk a second wave of deaths and possibly necessitate a second lockdown, which could mean inflicting even more economic damage over the long term. 

But we in India have waded so far out into the stream that at this point there is no turning back. Frankly, from this point, the choice narrows down to how many lives the country is prepared to lose to prevent deeper economic devastation.  

As the German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, the current control of the virus’s spread through lockdown is nothing more than a “fragile intermediate success”. In Merkel’s words, 

“The curve has become flatter. It needs to remain like this so that it doesn’t overtax our health system. We have studied models. We’re now at about reproduction factor 1 — ie., on person infecting just another person. I can only say, that is for one chain of infection if one person will infect only one other person. But, if we get to the point where everyone infects 1.1 people, then by October we will reach the capacity level of our health system, with the number of intensive care beds available. If we get to 1.2 people, everyone will be infecting 20 percent more. That is, out of 5 people, if one infects two and the rest one, then we will reach the limit of our healthcare system in July. And if it is up to 1.3 people, then in June we will reach the limits of our healthcare system. So, that’s where you can see how small the margin is. And the whole evolution is based on the fact that we assume that we have an infection figure that we can monitor, that we can track. And that we have more protection concepts — and that thanks to them, we can loosen restrictions. But it is thin ice… or a fragile situation or really a situation where caution is the order of the day and not overconfidence.” 

The prognosis is gloomy. If the equilibrium reached after weeks of lockdown is so fragile and precarious for Germany, a very affluent country with a well-developed healthcare system and a population of 83 million, can it be any better for India?

Merkel’s candour is admirable. She is in no doubt that her country should be taken into confidence. For India too, there should be no illusions about what lies ahead in the months ahead.

One-third of India comes under the rubric ‘red zones’ already. The EU document gives a good checklist on what is to be done alongside lockdown and during an exit out of it in order for a strategy to be effective. Or else, the exit from lockdown may end up as jumping from the frying pan into the fire.