As the ongoing novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) continues to wreak global havoc, countries in the European Union are experimenting with new ways of dealing with the virus, Bloomberg reported.
Germany, Portugal and Italy are among countries that experimented with selective or “smart” lockdowns, responding to new outbreaks by shutting down smaller regions instead of bringing their entire countries to a halt. This approach is the only hope of returning to a more normal life as we wait for a vaccine.
However, it also puts a much larger onus on the public sector compared to generalised lockdowns. Health officials have to ensure small outbreaks do not get out of control and force the need for harsher measures.
The local governments in Germany were pushed to announce new or partial lockdowns owing to a number of outbreaks in abattoirs. Italy, on the other hand, managed to contain some small flare-ups without having to impose additional restrictions.
However, Italy had to impose quarantine in an area in the southern region of Calabria after a handful of cases were reported, whereas Portugal ordered stores in parts of Lisbon to shut down early, among other restrictions, after a worrying new spike in cases.
"Some of these cases show striking similarities, as many of these new outbreaks originated in migrant communities facing overcrowded living quarters or unsafe working conditions. This was true of one meat processing plant owned by the Toennies Group in Germany, where more than a thousand employees, most of them migrants from Eastern Europe, came down with Covid-19. Similar was the case of the much smaller outbreak in Italy’s central region of Marche," the article reported.
A similar situation occurred in Portugal at the end of May as Jamaican neighbourhood, already struggling with a housing crisis, witnessed an outbreak. Health-care facilities were another potential source of contagion, as was the case for a recent flare-up in Rome.
The article further stated that although "this tailored approach to lockdowns is in no way a repudiation of the more draconian measures most European countries enforced earlier. In fact, the current strategy can only work because Europe has largely brought new infections under control. It doesn’t look as feasible for countries such as the US and Brazil, where new infections are still on the rise in many areas."
Along with the smart lockdown strategy, cooperation from the population at large was termed vital. This entails wearing masks and maintaining social distance - two ways to reduce the risk of a new surge in cases.
However, much of the burden falls on governments as they are responsible for identifying new cases early through rapid testing and contact tracing in order to circumscribe the contagion.
Getting more people to download contact-tracing apps would help on this front - not enough have done so in France and Italy - but the authorities will also have to ensure local healthcare systems have enough staff to trace infections effectively.
Lastly, the governments will need to manage the process of reopening borders carefully, especially of countries that were still to keep the virus in check.
Despite all the efforts, it may prove to be insufficient as a few “superspreader events” or even individual “superspreaders” could prove particularly challenging to manage. But if Europe is successful in this new phase of its fight against the pandemic, the economic and social benefits could be huge.
Until a vaccine or benign mutation of Covid-19 is discovered, smart lockdowns are Europe's - and by and large the world's - best hope.