A friend called a few days ago. He is the owner of a trendy restaurant in Dubai. The restaurant was reopened in the last week of April when Dubai allowed the malls and restaurants to reopen as part of the partial reopening of the economic activities following a month of closure.
He said there are hardly any customers in the last 10 days, although it is Ramadan. During the Ramadan evening, he said, it would be a full house. Most of the people are staying home, I said, and some are too afraid to mix with others in restaurants and other public places, despite the measures taken, I am sure, by these outlets such as sterilisation and social distancing.
As governments struggle with the outbreak, trying every trick in the book to stop its spread and minimise its devastating economy and social fallouts, individual privacy and personal freedoms are losing appeal worldwide. People seem very happy to lose some (or all in some parts of the world) of their freedoms to stay safe
My friend thinks it is more cost effective to close the place for a while. That could be true. And Dubai is not unique in this dilemma - to reopen the economy or not. Is it time to ease the virus containment restrictions or it is too soon.
Social distancing rules
“You’re going to lose more people [die] by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” US president Trump told his favourite TV station Fox News. “I’m talking about where people suffer massive depression, where people commit suicide, where tremendous death happens … I mean, definitely would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus,” as a result of job losses and the economic impact of the virus, he told the American people to justify rushing into loosening social distancing rules and allowing the resumption of most economic activities. “
This is the fundamental question the world has been wrestling with for the past few weeks. Trump has made the reopening of the economy such a priority that sometimes he sounds more like a greedy Wall Street banker than the president.
So, what does it take to reopen a country or a city and be safe at the same? Let us look at the experience of two countries that may actually offer at least a hint of the answer- Kuwait and South Korea.
The experience of Kuwait has so far been messy. The country was one of the first to impose partial curfew and close the borders. But the situation has only gotten worse. The numbers of infections continue to rise dramatically.
On Friday, the government announced that it will impose a 24-hour total lockdown; to shut down the entire country in order to contain the spread of the virus. Kuwait has so far more than 7,000 infection cases- a big number in a country of 4 million people. Nearly 50 people died.
The curfew order goes into effect today, Sunday, for 20 days. Kuwait hopes the situation would be stabilised by then, or perhaps a vaccine or a treatment will have been developed, I guess.
In South Korea, which in March was the second largest infected nation after China, life has been steadily returning to normal. The number of cases has gone down so much that there are days when the number of new cases is a single digit. How did they do it?
There are serval factors that made South Korea a successful example in containing the virus, such as their famous (or infamous) track alert, which sends texts to phone users to inform them about the whereabouts in the last few days of anyone in their contact list who tests positive, so people could avoid those places and related contacts.
Safety is top priority
The details of that certain person’s whereabouts is confirmed by CCTV footage and credit card transaction data. The practice of course goes against every privacy code that we know. But the authorities decided public safety was the ultimate priority.
As governments struggle with the outbreak, trying every trick in the book to stop its spread and minimise its devastating economy and social fallouts, individual privacy and personal freedoms are losing appeal worldwide. People seem very happy to lose some (or all in some parts of the world) of their freedoms to stay safe.
The Track Alerts system was criticised by many, even in South Korea, but it proved effective somehow. However, the secret of their success in containing the virus is less sophisticated that the alerts and CCTV footages.
It is the public commitment. Yes. The people themselves were South Korea’s best weapon in the fight against the ferocious enemy. People in South Korea follow the rules voluntarily. The police didn’t have to chase them down to leave the streets.
“South Korea successfully flattened the curve on Covid-19 in 20 days without enforcing extreme draconian measures that restrict freedom and movement of people,” the government boasted last week in a study they hoped to share with the rest of the world. The government researchers credited the public’s voluntary compliance for the results.
In Kuwait, it is the opposite. No one followed the rules. Videos of police patrols chasing trespassers in the streets are all over the social media. Migrant workers protests happened frequently. Ramadan gatherings are in full swing despite the authorities warning. Public markets are crowded. Few people followed the social distancing rules.
Will the total lockdown work in Kuwait? Hopefully. But it is not about the rules. The question of reopening a country does not depend solely on the guidelines issued by governments. It is all about our commitment to stay health and keep society safe. For measures to work, Kuwaitis and everyone else in other countries need to be South Korean.
My friend, who owns the restaurant, was dismayed his customers failed to show up. I was not. I thought it was a good sign. People here are staying at home. We will hopefully flatten the curve soon. It is all about our commitment.