The last few days have seen growing optimism in Asia and Europe that the coronavirus crisis may have passed its peak there. 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, even in these geographies.
Across Asia, for instance, numerous countries that appeared to have the pandemic under control, from Hong Kong to 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 lock down in each country, on which the theory rests that countries will rapidly ‘bounce back’ from the crisis, there may be 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 corona-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.
Even if 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 peaks in many countries in these continents is still some time away.
Yet, the recent optimistic air has come not just from Asia with China lifting in Wuhan last Wednesday a number restrictive measures, but also in Europe where death rates may have peaked in the continent’s so-far worst affected countries Italy and Spain, and the separate news that Austria and the Czech Republic are preparing to relax restrictions after the Easter holidays.
The news from Wuhan is particularly striking some 4 months after cases were publicly reported. From last Wednesday, people are now allowed to leave the area for the first time since the multi-month lockdown.
Moreover, in Italy and Spain, coronavirus death rates now appear to be on a downward trend, albeit still at high rates of more than 500 deaths a day. This is reinforced by news from Austria where small shops and DIY stores will reopen from April 14, as well as state parks, and, from May 1, all shops, shopping centres and hairdressers.
Yet, optimism that the tide, even in these select geographies has decisively turned still may be premature on three main fronts.
Worrying signs of a second wave
Firstly, the fact remains that several key countries within these massive continents have almost certainly yet to hit their peak point of the crisis. Take the example of Indonesia which reported on Thursday its largest daily jump in deaths and now has an official total of 280 coronavirus deaths. For a country of over 270 million people, it is certain that these numbers will rise, potentially dramatically.
This is also anticipated in the United Kingdom too where, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson sadly still in hospital, the pandemic is forecast not to peak until later this month. This is, despite the fact that as of Friday, almost 9,000 people had died from coronavirus in hospital (not including hospices and care homes etc).
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. Take the example here of South Korea, which had been widely praised for its actions in recent weeks after a significant initial peak in infections, which has subsequently decided that new measures are needed including required all incoming foreigners this month to quarantine in government facilities for two weeks on entry to the country.
Thirdly, and in this context, all remaining restrictions are therefore being rescinded only very cautiously. In China, officials are rightly concerned in Wuhan about a second wave of infections as local health authorities step up detection, monitoring and supervision.
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 also operate only limited number of flights, and no cabins can be more than three quarters full.
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In Western Europe too, caution is uppermost in minds. For instance, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz cautioned in recent days that authorities could activate an “emergency brake” if infections accelerate once more, and said 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 too in Germany, despite media speculation that restrictions could start to be lifted as soon as April 17. Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, poured cold water on this saying she’s 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 height of the corona crisis is over, even in those geographies. Moreover, even if 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 peaks in many countries in these continents is still some time away.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics