London – Wuhan, the Chinese city where it all started, was locked down for 79 days before the restrictions on movement were finally lifted last week. A bit overcautious, perhaps, but in China the coronavirus does really seem to be under control.
If President Donald Trump “reopens” the United States at the end of this month, then California and a few other states will have been under lockdown for only half that many days, and some states for much less time or even none. Far from being under control, the COVID-19 virus is killing huge numbers of Americans (2,405 on Tuesday), and the number is still rising.
These two giants define the extremes of the “lives versus livelihoods” debate, but almost every other country is having it too. Everybody knows that you can’t shut the economy down indefinitely, but nobody wants to risk a second wave of infections by moving too soon.
Well, almost nobody. Trump is frantic to reopen the economy because he has an election coming up in six months, and he will lose it if the economy has not recovered by then. Dr Anthony Fauci has doubtless explained that lifting the restrictions on movement on May 1 will cause a second wave of deaths and a second lockdown before November.
Trump might actually order the country to reopen on May 1, as he believes that “when somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.” But most states wouldn’t obey his command: as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said: “We have a Constitution … we don’t have a king … the president doesn’t have total authority.”
Elsewhere, some countries are cautiously reopening their economies a bit at a time, but they either had a very high death rate early and have now wrestled it down again — China, Italy and Spain — or responded hard and early and never had a high infection rate, like Germany, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and New Zealand.
We should also note two countries that never closed their economies down at all, because they could test, identify the infected and trace their contacts fast enough to break the chains of infection and keep deaths low: Taiwan and South Korea. All three of these groups have one vital thing in common.
They have the ability to “test, test, test,” the WHO put it a month ago, warning countries that they “cannot fight a fire blindfolded.” And they can follow up the tests with contact-tracing teams and apps so that not just the individual who tested positive but the whole cluster of other people who had contact with him or her can be isolated.
Any countries that have their infection rate down and have their testing and tracing teams ready can start reopening their economies, although there will be a continuing low but steady toll of deaths until a vaccine is found. France, Canada and Australia can probably do it next month.
Countries like Turkey, Russia and South Africa are more debatable, because they gave the virus a head start, but their medical infrastructure is strong enough that they could think about letting their citizens go back to work by July. However, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Brazil and India are very worrisome.
India is doing the right things, but it started late, its medical resources are limited and the sheer numbers of victims may overwhelm the system. Brazil has a complete fool in charge in President Jair Bolsonaro, and the many sensible people in the health care system may be unable to overcome his malign influence.
As for the U.S. and the U.K., they both reacted late to the threat, which guarantees that their casualties would be considerably above the rich-country average. Worse, they do not have the testing and tracking resources in place that would make reopening the economy a relatively safe proposition.
On April 3 the British health secretary, Matt Hancock, pledged 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of the month. Half the month is gone, and the maximum number of tests carried out on a single day has been under 15,000.
The U.S. situation is harder to judge, since there is not a unified healthcare system but a highly fragmented “health care sector.” However, nobody has spotted evidence of nationwide preparations for extensive testing and tracking once everybody goes back to work, so a second wave of deaths later in the year is practically guaranteed. This might spell the end of Trump, perhaps, but at a high price.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.
Your news needs your support
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.