The geopolitics of easing coronavirus lockdowns

Marco Vicenzino

Published: Updated:

As numerous countries gradually emerge from nearly two months of coronavirus quarantines, many citizens will struggle to transition from lockdown limbo to the “new” normal and its accompanying realities. Political necessity, public pressure, and economic survival demand the start of a re-opening process – and where reasonably possible, at a progressively elevated pace.

However, the brutal reality is that without a vaccine or effective treatment, the coronavirus remains a deadly threat. Particularly, it is most threatening to the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. The objective must be to save lives and livelihoods; these are not mutually exclusive, but will require civic responsibility and concerted action.

Many Western countries are entering unchartered territory as they exit lockdown. On the one hand, activities such as mass testing and social distancing, aimed at preventing a second wave of infection, will become the norm for the foreseeable future. However, uniform standards often cannot apply to all countries, or even within countries, particularly as the virus’s impact varies in different locations. The bottom line is that one size does not fit all. Each state must pursue flexible and pragmatic policies that produce results – whether at the national, regional, or local levels – and within the constitutional framework of each given democratic society.

Some Asian societies are better prepared and equipped in confronting coronavirus due to their experience with other viral outbreaks over the last 20 years, including SARS. South Korea and Taiwan stand out as solid examples. Through practical measures and civic responsibility, they demonstrated how a society can continue functioning while confronting a pandemic.

Yet constant vigilance is required as coronavirus’s ability to resurface and spread quickly should never be underestimated. Until recently, Singapore was a top 10 global performer in combating coronavirus. However, an unfortunate outbreak among close-quartered migrant workers triggered a new wave of infections, and as a result, Singapore was forced to reimpose stricter measures.

Response from China

With only 429 coronavirus infections and six deaths, Taiwan has provided some of the most valuable lessons that can be gleaned from the pandemic. Regarded as a renegade province by the mainland’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CPP), Taiwanese officials are keenly aware of the CCP’s playbook and expertise for repression and cover-ups. Taiwan understood early on that a deadly viral outbreak was occurring in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus originated. By early January, Taiwan began screening travelers from mainland China and taking necessary measures to combat the outbreak.

Unfortunately, Taiwan’s early warnings to the World Health Organization about the outbreak went unheeded. As WHO’s leadership tows the Chinese Communist line on no recognition of Taiwan, it must bear its fair share of responsibility for the consequences of ignoring Taiwan’s pleas. It initially politicized the fight against coronavirus, which inevitably led to the loss of precious time and most certainly lives.

Despite China’s early masked diplomacy and aggressive disinformation campaign, its narrative of a superior one-party system used to defeat coronavirus has been largely debunked. International public opinion is increasingly, and correctly, holding China responsible for trying to cover up coronavirus’s existence and then downplaying its severity.

China’s missteps led to the virus’s rapid spread at home, and later globally, resulting in the loss of more than 250,000 lives, millions of livelihoods, and the practical collapse of the global economy.

Unheeded warnings

Despite warnings, Western leaders underestimated the virus. They were caught off guard upon impact, and this was most acutely felt in many medical systems.

However, others who heeded the early advice and took action are now better prepared to ease lockdowns. While Italy, France, Spain, and the UK have suffered from coronavirus deaths numbering more than 20,000 in each country, a different tale prevails in other parts of Europe.

Germany has emerged as an exception compared to the above group. Its mass testing of more than 100,000 citizens per day has helped this. Furthermore, there was responsible political leadership at the federal, regional, and local levels, and individuals did their civic duty to help curb the spread of the virus.

Greece also defied the odds by imposing seemingly draconian measures, and until now remains relatively unscathed. This puts the country in an advantageous position as it begins to emerge from lockdown, but its fragile economy – particularly its critical tourism industry – will feel the effect of the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Much credit is also due to the states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). These states began to see their first cases in early March, but they had already observed the carnage the virus had begun to leave in Italy. These states used their brief window of opportunity and immediately began imposing effective rapid reaction measures. They were among the first to shut their borders in Europe, close all non-essential shops, and strictly limit public gatherings and imposing mandatory mask laws.

Comparing coronavirus deaths per million people, most large Western European nations have rates in the hundreds, but CEE states’ numbers hover in the mid-double digits. Where Austria’s rate is 65 per million, Slovakia is as low as 4 per million.

The Nordic states of Denmark, Norway, and Finland initially imposed strict measures that resulted in extremely low death rates. As the Nordic outlier, Sweden’s experimental approach is still mired in debate. While lauded by the World Health Organization, criticism is mounting, as is the body count.

Latin America is currently registering the fastest growing coronavirus rates globally, and as economic pressures mount in countries such as Brazil and Mexico, governments are reluctant to stifle business. As negative economic pressure mounts in Brazil and Mexico, their presidents are reluctant to stifle business. With Mexico’s expected coronavirus numbers to peak in mid-May, critical supply chains to the US market remain at risk. On the other hand, mass testing has won approval for Chile’s center-right government which just months ago was paralyzed by national protests.

Although coronavirus’s impact on Africa appears mild until now, pessimists fear the worst is yet to come. As South Africa and Nigeria, the continent’s leading economic powers, begin easing lockdowns, the coronavirus jury is still out.

Moving north, coronavirus in the US has not been immune to the country’s highly polarized political environment, particularly in a critical election year. In America, success in the fight against coronavirus will largely be determined at a state level. A governor’s authority to open or close a state, including easing lockdowns, combined with responsible efforts by local officials and citizenry will ultimately define any given outcome.

Thus far, the numbers range dramatically across the nation. The northeastern states of New York and New Jersey, combined, account for roughly one-third of coronavirus infections and deaths in America. On the other hand, America’s three largest states by population – California, Texas, and Florida – combined account for roughly 10 percent of US infections and approximately 6 percent of deaths.

While May marks the month of gradual transition from lockdown limbo, June will likely signal America’s first rude awakening to the new normal. Profound economic damage, beyond what was felt during the Great Recession of 2008 has already been felt. Now, the questions is whether the situation resembles 2008, the Great Depression of 1929, or perhaps something in between.

It will likely veer toward 1929 if a second wave of infections materializes and lockdowns extend into the third quarter. In this worst-case scenario, globally, all will inevitably be impacted by varying degrees. Those blessed with ample cash liquidity may be temporarily afforded a softer landing, while most others will bear the long-term brunt of the carnage to come. The loss of 30 million jobs in just six weeks may just mark the tip of the iceberg for the US, but likely much more for the rest of the world.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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