By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
This week has seen growing optimism in Asia and Europe that the coronavirus crisis may have passed its peak in these areas. Yet, while global markets have been buoyed by these developments, from Wuhan to Western Europe, it is still too early to conclusively say that the tide has turned.
Across Asia, for instance, numerous countries that appeared to have the pandemic under control, including Hong Kong and South Korea, have tightened borders and imposed stricter containment measures in recent days, given growing concern of new infections “imported” from elsewhere. This has given rise to speculation that, rather than seeing one big lockdown in each country — on which the theory rests that countries will rapidly “bounce back” from the crisis — there may be the need for a number of semi-continuous restrictions.
While it remains possible that this rapid bounce-back theory turns out to be true, several previous coronavirus-related consensuses have been smashed in recent weeks. Remember that a little over two months ago, for instance, there was a widespread belief that the virus might be a China-only challenge.
This week’s optimistic air has come not just from Asia, with China on Wednesday lifting restrictive measures in Wuhan, but also in Europe, where death rates may have peaked in the continent’s as yet worst-affected countries Italy and Spain, and the separate news announced Monday that Austria and the Czech Republic are preparing to relax restrictions after the coming Easter weekend.
The news from Wuhan is particularly striking some three months after cases were first publicly reported. People are now allowed to leave the city for the first time since the multi-month lockdown was imposed. In Italy and Spain, the number of coronavirus deaths now appears to be on a downward trend, albeit still at high rates of more than 500 a day. This is reinforced by news from Austria, where small shops, DIY stores and state parks will reopen from April 14 and, from May 1, all shops, shopping centers and hairdressers.
However, optimism that the tide, even in these select geographies, has decisively turned still may be premature on three main fronts.
Firstly, the fact remains that several key countries within these massive continents have almost certainly yet to hit their peak. Take the example of Indonesia, which on Monday confirmed 218 new coronavirus cases — its biggest daily jump yet — taking the total number of infections to about 2,500. For a country of more than 270 million people, it is almost certain that these numbers will rise, potentially dramatically. This is also anticipated in the UK, where, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson sadly in intensive care in hospital, the virus is not forecast to peak until later this month.
Secondly, even when the coronavirus was presumed to have been under control in certain countries, especially in Asia, there have been discouraging signs that success with containment could be prone to at least partial reversal. South Korea, which has been widely praised for its actions in recent weeks after a significant initial peak in infections, has decided that new measures are needed, including requiring all foreign arrivals to quarantine in government facilities for two weeks.
Thirdly, all remaining restrictions are being rescinded only very cautiously. In China, officials are rightly concerned about a second wave of infections in Wuhan, as local health authorities step up the detection, monitoring and supervision of the virus.
A temporary ban on all foreign visitors also remains in place, even if they have residence permits or visas. Meanwhile, Chinese and foreign airlines can operate only a limited number of flights and no cabins can be more than three-quarters full.
In Western Europe too, caution is uppermost in people’s minds. For instance, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warned on Monday that authorities could activate an “emergency brake” if infections accelerated once more, and said the coming days “will be decisive in whether the resurrection after Easter that we all want can take place.” Moreover, the government is extending its three-week-old restrictions on public movement until the end of April.
Such prudence is also prevailing in Germany, despite media speculation that restrictions could start to be lifted as soon as April 17. Chancellor Angela Merkel poured cold water on this suggestion on Monday, saying she is as anxious as anyone for life to return to normal in the country but that “we’re still living in the pandemic” and now isn’t the time to talk about an end date to restrictive measures.
Taken overall, while there are encouraging signs in parts of Asia and Europe, it is too early to predict that the worst of the coronavirus crisis is over, even in these areas. Moreover, even if the current optimism proves justified, urgent international attention will soon need to turn to other key areas of the world, including Africa and the Americas, where the peaks in many countries are still some time away.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics