WASHINGTON - Several countries in Europe and Asia are gradually easing their coronavirus lockdowns this week. From extensive testing to strict social distancing, these countries took aggressive measures before cautiously lifting some restrictions.
On Monday, South Korea lifted closure advisories on high-risk venues such as churches, bars and sporting facilities. The number of new infections had dropped to a single digit the day before.
“We have the room to consider balancing infection control and economic activities,” said South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, while announcing eased rules on social distancing Sunday.
Dr. Kent Calder, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told VOA that East Asian countries including Korea, Taiwan and Singapore employed rigorous contact tracing to contain the virus successfully.
“Contact tracing, including digital techniques, is especially important. … Tracking infected individuals so that society generally can operate more freely,” Calder said.
He added widespread testing should support the tracing efforts. South Korea has, to date, tested more than 500,000 people, among the highest number in the world per capita.
Testing and treatment capacity
Some German retailers began reopening on Monday, along with car dealerships and bicycle shops and bookstores. Under the agreement Chancellor Angela Merkel reached with state leaders, retailers with shops up to 800 square meters are allowed to open this week.
Like South Korea, Germany quickly rolled out widespread testing at the outset of the outbreak and captured asymptomatic infections.
Dr. Wenhui Mao, a researcher at Duke Global Health Institute, told VOA sufficient testing capacity is essential before easing the lockdown.
She explained that suspected cases must be tested as much as possible before reopening to make sure infected patients are receiving proper care or self-quarantined before recovery.
On top of widespread testing, Germany was also able to keep fatalities low thanks to its universal health care system. The medical journal Lancet put Germany in 18th place in the world in access to quality health care. Germany leads other countries in terms of the number of beds in intensive care units with 22,000 beds, and with 10,000 of them still free.
First lockdowns in Europe
Several countries among the first in Europe to implement lockdowns are reopening this week with precautionary measures.
The Czech Republic moved quickly to impose restrictions on travel and large events and closed businesses after declaring a state of emergency March 12.
It also ordered everyone to cover their faces. After strict containment measures, the government allowed hardware stores and bike stores to reopen.
Other stores and restaurants will be allowed to open gradually over the next two months. Students are also returning to schools in phases from Monday.
One month after declaring a state of emergency, Spain allowed manufacturing and construction work to resume Monday with about 4 million workers estimated to have returned to work. Police handed out masks at transit hubs to returning workers.
After five weeks of closures, hairdressers and other small businesses in Denmark reopened Monday, following the reopening of elementary schools last week. Austria and Norway also eased lockdowns.
Spike in infections
Singapore was able to suppress cases without lockdown measures because of its aggressive testing and quarantining. But a second wave has hit hard, with cases growing from 266 to more than 8,000 since March 17, according to the Johns Hopkins University.
Experts say government testing missed clusters of infections that grew rapidly. Singapore since announced a “circuit breaker,” a package of strict restrictions to stem the spread of the virus. Experts fear easing of such restrictions carries the risk of starting a second wave.
The Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security noted in its recent report on phased reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reopening. It advised policymakers to consider testing and health care capacities, careful risk-assessments, and weigh the risks and benefits sector by sector.
Mao, the Duke University researcher, said “even for regions that ease lockdown, covering mouth and nose, keeping social distancing, having good hand hygiene is still encouraged.”