Lockdowns, partial lockdowns and social restrictions are returning to Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere as new COVID-19 cases pick up momentum. No one is happy about the new curbs on business and social life, but most people understand they are necessary to avoid a repeat of the deadly crisis in the spring.
One is Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at Israel’s National Institute for Security Studies whose son’s kindergarten recorded a dozen COVID-19 cases in September. The surge has pushed Israel back into lockdown for at least a month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday.
“I know the price of lockdown is terrible, but so is the price of not having one,” Dr. Lindenstrauss said.
Still, a small but vocal number of people in Europe and elsewhere, from Ireland to India, are taking to the streets to protest the lockdowns and restrictions, putting pressure on governments to ease up on measures that, by definition, restrict personal freedoms and business activity in order to slow or halt the spread of the highly infectious disease. The new measures include shorter business hours for restaurants and bars (United Kingdom, Spain, France), compulsory mask wearing in shops (the Netherlands) and the lockdown of cities and towns where the number of active cases reaches 500 per 100,000 residents (as Spain is likely to announce this week).
In recent weeks, protests – some fairly small, others with several thousand marchers – have filled streets and squares in Dublin, Berlin, Brussels, Rome, Madrid, Tel Aviv and Melbourne, among other cities.
London’s Trafalgar Square has seen some of Europe’s biggest gatherings since late August. A protest on Saturday attracted speakers such as Piers Corbyn, the weather forecaster brother of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and well-known conspiracy theorist David Icke, who called masks “a symbol of oppression” and urged everyone to “take your bloody mask off.” Nine police officers and three protesters were injured at the event and 16 people were arrested.
Protesters in Ireland and throughout the U.K. were encouraged by the release of three new lockdown songs in mid-September by Van Morrison, the singer and songwriter from Belfast who has won two Grammy Awards and a Brit Award for his chart-topping music. In one of the songs he sings: “No more lockdown/No more government overreach/No more fascist bullies/Disturbing our peace.”
Some of the protesters are the usual science deniers and conspiracy theorists, who believe the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a hoax, that masks are useless or dangerous or that the spread of the virus is triggered by 5G antennas. Others believe the virus exists but that the pandemic restrictions are secret plots by governments to expand their powers and install a surveillance system that will track citizens' every move.
But many others are just weary of the closings and other restrictions, which began in March, eased off in the summer and are coming back again. They think they are an overreaction to a disease whose fatality rates are fairly low. A good number of them think the plethora of physical distancing and closing rules are confusing, unenforceable or not backed by science.
The British government in particular has been ridiculed for its ever-changing mishmash of rules and recommendations. They seem designed to be ignored, like the “rule of six,” the new ban on gatherings of more than six people in one spot. Is a gathering of seven really more dangerous? Are children under the age of 12 exempt? (They are in Wales and Scotland, but not elsewhere in the U.K.)
The lockdowns and restrictions have come at a terrible economic cost, with many countries recording their deepest economic downturns on record.
The European Union economy is expected to shrink 8.7 per cent this year. The economy of the U.K., which is no longer part of the EU, is almost 22-per-cent smaller now than it was at the end of 2019, the Office of National Statistics said Wednesday, “highlighting the unprecedented sized of this contraction.” A new report by Wouter van der Wielen, an economist at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, said unemployment-related fears “have recently jumped far beyond those observed during the Great Recession [of 2008 and 2009].”
New surveys suggest that support for quarantines and self-isolation is falling. In March, 78 per cent of French people approved of the quarantining of those who had come into contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to a YouGov poll. That support has since fallen to 48 per cent. In Germany, support fell to 58 per cent from 72 per cent. And well less than half of those surveyed in the U.K., France and Spain approved of their government’s handling of the pandemic.
Sweden, which never went into full lockdown, reported a terrible infection and fatality rate in the early days of the pandemic, but its caseload has fallen substantially even as it rises elsewhere in Europe. “The long-term impacts, socially, economically and even in terms of overall public health, don’t justify the trade-offs of a wholesale lockdown of the economy,” said Marshall Auerback, a research fellow at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. “Selective quarantines would have been a far more rational approach.”
As pandemic restrictions intensify throughout the world, the protests are bound to continue. Some of the protesters are just angry because they think the restrictions are haphazard and not worth the economic costs. They have a point. Rules that are simple, backed by science, tailored to the worst-hit areas and not devastating to broad sectors of the economy could prevent a popular backlash that might sabotage any government’s best intentions.
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