So how do they prepare to return to “normal” life? In one word: Be careful. And those who watch enviously from other countries may notice that many are far from normal.
South Korea – which in February had the biggest outbreak outside China – used a combination of extensive testing, aggressive contact tracking, harsh public health measures and digital technology to contain the corona virus without having to force extensive lockouts. It also maintains a strict quarantine regime.
Thanks to these steps, newly diagnosed cases have slowed to a point of dripping and the national death rate reached 256 on Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Against this background, the South Korean government on Wednesday began to loosen strict social distance rules, imposed on March 22, but only in line with a series of guidelines referred to as “distancing in daily life” policies.
According to these guidelines, people must stay at home if they are ill with suspected Covid-19 symptoms, continue to maintain a distance of 2 meters (6 feet) from others, wash their hands for 30 seconds and keep the room well ventilated and regularly disinfected. Those over the age of 65 and in high risk groups must continue to stay at home and avoid confined and overcrowded spaces.
As stated by the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the policy “should not be interpreted as implying a return to ‘normal’ as before the outbreak but rather as an effort to achieve the prevention / control of infectious diseases and everyday life.”
In line with this, South Korea’s baseball season resumes on Tuesday – but with games played in empty stadiums, while referees and base coaches wear masks. In one game, instead of the ceremonial first pitch, there is a socially remote start when a boy in a big balloon walks from the mound to the catcher.
Children will start returning to school starting May 13. Speaking Monday, South Korean education minister Yoo Eun-Hae told students what would happen in this new post-coronavirus reality.
“As soon as you arrive at a class, you need to clean your desk while the window must be opened often,” he said. “You will also be asked to wear a mask except when eating and keep your arms double when you are moving or standing in line. You must remember this rule and we urge you to keep it.”
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a briefing on Sunday that closed facilities will be reopened gradually and that events and meetings will be allowed as long as they comply with disinfection guidelines.
“It’s very refreshing and relieving stress to finally come out,” Ju Eun-song, a 32-year-old shop sales assistant, told AFP when the restrictions were relaxed on Wednesday.
“When we resolve social distance, we are at a stage where people are accustomed to the distance of daily life,” Jo Jae-hong, a 38-year-old businessman, told the news agency.
But Friday’s emergence of more than a dozen new cases related to an individual who visited three nightclubs in Seoul last weekend served as a warning about how quickly the virus could regain its footing. Officials quickly suggested the clubs and bars be closed for next month.
Peter Drobac, global health expert at Oxford Saïd Business School, believes that the experience of other governments shows that a cautious approach is the right approach.
“There is no strict prescription that will work elsewhere, but there is a set of principles,” he told CNN via email.
“First, smooth the curves – or better yet, break the curves – until there is a continuous decline in new cases. Opening when you still have an uncontrolled spread of community, like in the US, is insanity.”
Second, he said, countries must ensure their health systems can cope without crisis measures and that health workers have the necessary protective equipment; Third, a large testing capacity must exist.
“Fourth, contact tracing – which requires people and technology – and plans to isolate quarantine cases and contacts. Isolation should not be done at home! That’s where most transmissions occur. I don’t understand why this is ignored in the UK and US.”
Finally, high-risk and vulnerable groups must be protected, he said, because new community mobility increases the risk of new infections.
“The key to reopening is to offset that risk with testing, tracking and isolation,” he said. “This is a tried and true intervention that breaks the chain of transmission. That doesn’t mean you can get back to normal, but it increases the chance you can start to open up safely.”
Other countries can learn a lot from South Korea, he said.
“It’s easy to talk about ‘tests, traces, isolation’ but it’s hard to do. When you look at the power of South Korea’s response, it is a series of great lessons that can be replicated,” Drobac said. “Other important factors in South Korea appear to be transparent communication and public trust. This will become more difficult in places where the response is mismanaged or politicized, such as the US and Britain.”
Germany can be ‘brave’
Germany also took a step-by-step approach to reopening business after a week-long closing.
The social contact limit will remain in effect until June 5, he said, but people can now meet with members from one other household as well as themselves. People must remain 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart and cover their mouth and nose in public.
Shops can be reopened but with additional cleanliness measures, Merkel added, speaking at a press conference after a video meeting with the prime ministers of 16 German states. “The first phase of the pandemic is behind us, but we are still at the beginning and it will be with us for a long time,” Merkel said.
Germany’s top football league, the Bundesliga, will return to play starting May 16 – but under tight and unattended restrictions. This will be the first major European league to return to action.
The German coronavirus response is widely seen as a success story in Europe. The death toll of Covid-19 in the country is relatively low compared to other countries and its well-resourced health system allows hospitals to accept patients from other more fought European countries. Germany’s sophisticated diagnostic industry means being able to carry out mass testing from the start.
The reproduction rate of the corona virus – an important measure – is estimated to have dropped to 0.65, the country’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), said Thursday. That means that on average, 100 people will infect 65 others.
At present, Germany is capable of conducting 964,000 coronavirus tests per week, RKI said, although only about a third of the capacity was used in the past week.
Germany’s relatively cautious approach to reopening seems wise, Drobac said.
“New cases every day go down to hundreds – this is not trivial, but this is a level that hopefully can be managed with a strong system for testing, tracking and isolation,” he said.
Germany’s decentralized government system, coupled with national coordination, means that there is local flexibility which is useful for deciding exactly how and when to mitigate social distance recommendations, he said.
“Big cities may need to move slower than rural areas, for example. But the important thing is, Germany has institutionalized a trigger – if new cases rise above 50 per 100,000, it automatically stops easing social distance. I don’t know if it will work, but it seems like a smart approach based on the evidence we have. “
Lock the lock ‘slowly but surely’
Elsewhere, urgent discussions continue on how to lift restrictions on people’s lives and revive the economy without jeopardizing the progress made in limiting the spread of the corona virus. And even when steps are relaxed, citizens face very different realities.
In Italy, around 4 million people were allowed to return to work this week – many of them are construction and factory workers – and Italians were again allowed to visit family members in the same region. The bar and restaurant reopened, but only for takeaway orders.
Government and church leaders also announced Thursday that mass and marriages can be celebrated in the church starting May 18, after being banned for almost two months. But the service will not look the same.
According to the protocol agreed upon by the leaders, priests and worshipers must wear masks. The priest will give the communion wearing gloves and must be careful “avoid contact with the hands of the faithful.”
Devotees must also maintain a distance of one meter (3 feet) from others, inside and outside the church, and anyone with a fever will not be accepted.
France will also start lifting restrictions on living at home on Monday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Thursday. He said it would be a “very gradual process” to “slowly but surely” lift lockdown steps.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will give a speech on television on Sunday about the country’s borders. Newspaper headlines have suggested significant relaxation on the card. But Foreign Minister Dominic Raab, who hosted the daily Covid-19 briefing on Downing Street on Thursday, said any steps would only be “additional” and “relatively simple.”
Drobac warned that the idea of choosing between prioritizing public health or the economy “was a mistake.”
“The only way to overcome the economic crisis is to overcome the public health crisis. Remember, locking is not the solution – this is an emergency stop that buys time to develop strategies and prepare,” he said.
“Right now there are dozens, if not hundreds, of small experiments that are happening all over the world when countries and communities try to reopen. We will learn a lot from this period about what a new normal form looks like for the next few years.”
CNN’s Yoonjung Seo and Sophie Jeong in Seoul contributed to this report. Nadine Schmidt from CNN, Stephanie Halasz and Livia Borghese also contributed.