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League of nations: the race out of lockdown

We’re taking part in a worldwide laboratory experiment

May 13, 2020

11:59 PM

13 May 2020

11:59 PM

Uppsala, Sweden

Last week, Europe started its liberation from lockdown — and it all feels like a study in national political identity. Belgium took its first step towards ‘deconfinement’ but no one seems exactly sure what that means. France is opting for complexity rather than simplicity. Italy’s national plan for the easing of its lockdown is more convoluted still, but few regions bother to follow it anyway. Spain, goes a national joke, went more slowly and started with a reopening of the siesta. And in Germany, everyone is praising the country’s scientific approach to the pandemic, but as soon as they were allowed to roam freely again, many Germans headed for the beer gardens.

Governments say their approach is ‘guided by the science’. In reality, science doesn’t offer any clear way out of this mess. There is no vaccine around the corner, no answers even to basic questions: how the virus spreads, how many have been infected, why children seem immune. Politics, not science, decides the path out of lockdown. Each country is reopening one step at a time and in its own way, searching for what works in practice, given the lack of certainty. Europe, with all its variety, has become a laboratory experiment in how to end lockdowns.

Here in Sweden, the experiment has involved not doing lockdown at all but instead asking people to socially distance. Gatherings of fewer than 50 are allowed, as are sports events for young people. Church services and dinner parties continue. The distancing has left many of our streets as empty as Britain’s, though, and our economy has suffered. We too have a scandal of too many deaths in care homes. Our guess — and as with everywhere else, it’s not much more than a guess — is that we’re seeing the tail end of it. Our deaths are about average for Europe, albeit higher than the rest of Scandinavia. The virus has spread pretty widely, and we hope it brings immunity in its wake. A study last week suggested herd immunity in Stockholm could be achieved next month, and with an infection rate of 40 percent.

But Sweden’s experiment has not, it seems, tempted other countries to copy it. In the UK, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock are inspired by the testing-intensive German model, and understandably so. Germany has tested about three million people for the virus and its ‘tech approach’ explains how the country has managed to keep its death toll so low. Mass testing is also crucial to Germany’s reopening plan. Bars, restaurants and small shops can now take customers again — provided that staff wear face masks and that people respect social distancing rules. The Bundesliga will restart, but Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and other clubs won’t be playing in crowded stadiums. Later this month, pupils will start going back to schools.

Even Germany’s strategy has at times been held up by Britain as an example of what not to do, however. The UK is judging things by the rate at which the virus spreads: the so-called R number. The aim is to maintain it at below one, so the number of new infections falls. Although ‘the R’ is not published daily in Britain, it is in Germany. And a week after Angela Merkel declared the reopening of the country, it had risen from 0.65 to above 1. This was taken by Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, as proof of what happens to countries that re-open too hastily. But by whose standards?

In Germany there is clear support for phased reopening. Unlike in Britain, German authorities aren’t too alarmed by rises in the R number (which is in any case subject to a lot of assumptions, guesswork and regional variation). Instead, Germans are judging their approach to lockdown by a simpler test: the number of infections. If the number of weekly cases is higher than 50 per 100,000 population in any given area, then the regulations will tighten — but only in that area.

This brings us to an important aspect in the question of ending lockdown: regional differences. We’re all used to seeing virus graphs comparing Britain’s progress with — say — Spain or France. But this disguises a crucial point: there are huge variations within countries. In the past week, Bavaria has averaged 195 new cases a day; Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, however, has recorded only four per day. The north of Italy was horribly affected; the south, hardly at all. A quarter of all Stockholmers have now had the virus, according to official estimates — its COVID rate has been six times that of Malmö. One regional council leader confessed that he had come to the capital to try to catch the virus, to gain immunity.


In the US, Donald Trump has been reduced to the status of an onlooker, cheering on the states that are easing lockdown. There is variety even within those states. In Florida restaurants are open, except in Miami and Palm Beach. And in South Dakota, businesses can reopen in counties that are not hotspots for the virus. Kristi Noem, its governor, says this approach would ‘put the power of decision-making into the hands of the people — where it belongs’.

Even Emmanuel Macron has given up on his earlier idea of France taking a national approach to lockdown. While the reopening of schools is part of a national plan, many parts of France have been given permission to come out of lockdown faster than others. They make up what is called the green zone — the 80 or so départements where the virus isn’t circulating much. Paris and the north-east, however, are a red zone. While Parisians no longer need to fill in a document to leave their houses, they are still restricted. They aren’t able to dine at their local bistros, and nor are the city’s parks and gardens open during this phase.

France wouldn’t be France if the pandemic didn’t inspire new grand attempts to engineer the economy in typical top-down fashion. The French Ministry of Labor has issued a 20-page plan for new safety measures at businesses big and small — adding to the 48 COVID workplace guidelines that were introduced in late April. Thanks to the government, every business owner now knows how to clean their premises and improve workflow management.

Then there is the technological response to the virus: isn’t there an app for that? And if not, can we make one? France, like Britain, has declined offers from Google and Apple to build decentralized tracing apps and instead created its own national app, StopCOVID. The government has promised that it will be ready next month — even though it hasn’t been fully tested yet. The main flaw is rather obvious: if the virus can spread through people who never develop symptoms, how will they be detected by any app? The French Assembly does not look entirely comfortable about approving the app. Just as in Belgium — where the government recently canceled plans for digital tracing — there are strong concerns in France that the app could preface a power grab. Deputies from both the ruling party — Macron’s La République En Marche! — and the opposition assume that people won’t like having Big Brother in their phone now that they have been freed from their mandatory confinement.

Overall, though, local and decentralized approaches do seem to work better than big national efforts. There are cultural differences to consider as well as the uneven spread of the virus. Bavaria isn’t the same as Berlin, and Bruges isn’t the same as Brussels. Local authorities can move faster than national governments. When power is dispersed rather than concentrated, there is a better chance that successful policies will be found and adopted in other places — and that failures will be spotted.

The reason Germany does so well with testing is, in part, that it doesn’t have a centralized health service: it has 16 strong state governments and, below that, 401 districts, together with a strong private medical sector. Since Berlin isn’t running the country’s healthcare system, hospitals did not have to wait for Merkel or a Reichstag committee to scale up testing. Local authorities could do that on their own and were able to experiment a lot in setting up the facilities for mass testing. And German states that were less quick off the block could catch up by copying what other states were doing.

The idea of a nationally imposed lockdown grates with many of Europe’s regions. A court in the German state of Saarland, for instance, ruled in late April that several of its restrictions were unconstitutional. Last month, there were small demonstrations in several German cities where people were protesting against restrictions on civil liberties; it became increasingly difficult to dismiss such protesters as right-wing trolls, especially as petitions were also filed at other state courts.

Similar rebellions are under way in Italy. This week, for instance, the government in South Tyrol has allowed bars, restaurants and hairdressers to open up again, despite several warnings from Rome that regions shouldn’t allow restaurants to have seated guests before June. In Veneto, people can now sit down outdoors for a drink at a bar and, again against Rome’s instructions, they can travel freely within the region to take care of second homes. Lombardy and several other regions have warned the national government that if restrictions on shops, salons and beaches aren’t lifted next week, they will abolish them anyway.

Everywhere there is political posturing. Many leaders find their opinion poll ratings boosted by the crisis. Some find it difficult to wean themselves off the strongman politics. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has used the pandemic as an opportunity to grab more power, and he isn’t planning to hand it back. Meanwhile, Denmark’s center-left Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, has increased her party’s rating by eight percent since early March, and she would like to maintain her Iron Lady image. Danes, she seems to think, have enjoyed the firm smack of the government, and want more of it.

Local political leaders, too, are enjoying the spotlight. Markus Söder, the state premier of Bavaria, has been labelled ‘Deutschland’s corona hardliner’ — and he is vying for stronger national influence. Set against him is Armin Laschet, the state leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, who is now the frontrunner to take over the national party and succeed Merkel. He has been airing his frustration with national lockdown policies for more than a month. Laschet took a more liberal line than Merkel and couldn’t wait to rid the country of what he considered silly restrictions. In the end, Laschet and other state premiers made it politically impossible for Merkel not to start reopening the country.

Where does all this leave Britain? Staying in lockdown may be a crushingly expensive luxury, but at least it allows the opportunity to learn from other countries about what works and what doesn’t. If the UK wants to recreate Germany’s machinery of testing, it may need to consider how to decentralize things and allow more regional experiments. But overall, the lesson is that any leader seeking to protect their economy and society will, at some point, have to take the plunge. There are no certainties, not enough science, no chance of avoiding risk. But when the time comes to make the break from lockdown, like every other country Britain will be flying in the dark.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.


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