COVID-19 and the trade-offs required for full easing of the lockdown – Norbert Mao

The government has eased the lockdown but the new measures have left many unanswered questions. The time scales are also vague because no one can predict with certainty the behavior of the virus. It is like a juggernaut!

We need the lockdown to be lifted so that we can go back to work, so that our children can go back to school and also because we want the freedom to do what we want with our lives.

The lockdown has been necessitated by the consideration of the worst possible outcome of the pandemic but the measures to combat the pandemic, including the lockdown has also caused a lot of harm. Families are separated, travel is restricted, inequalities are increasing and the economy is being damaged. Therefore no one should advocate for the lockdown to continue longer than necessary.

Easing the lockdown however cannot be like flipping a switch. It will have to be phased and gradual. It will also require a robust monitoring mechanism for the virus. The process of easing the lockdown may be slow or fast depending on what is on the ground. We have to move at the speed of the road.

The best way to think about and make decisions on the lockdown is to determine how well the advice on measures to control the spread of the virus are being adhered to. These include hand washing, social distancing, wearing masks and coughing hygienically. In addition, we have to ensure that we strengthen the capacity of health facilities. We also have to increase our capacity for testing and contact tracing in our communities.

Easing the lockdown will require a number of trade offs. The way we behave in public has to be different. Even the way we behave in the presence of family members will be different. The measures that will make the easing of the lockdown viable will depend more on personal choice and voluntary compliance, not coercion or compulsion.

When the lockdown was declared, many people did not know what its implications would be. As we ease the lockdown, citizens need a clear guidance on what it means for individuals, families and the entire society. The lack of a clear guidance for key sectors of the economy is leaving workers and their employers in the dark, the guidance on public transport and travel also needs to be made clearer. Above all, the government’s plans for easing the lockdown should be made public and widely shared.

The negative impact of the lockdown have not affected everyone equally. As we ease the lockdown we must be sensitive to the unequal impact of those measures. Those who need special support on account of greater vulnerability have to be supported.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has made it clear that countries should not plunge into easing lockdowns. Accordingly it published 6 criteria for easing restrictions. First, there must be evidence that COVID-19 transmission is controlled. Second, there must be in place enough facilities and capacity to identify, isolate, test and treat all cases and trace contacts. Third, outbreak risks must be minimal in high vulnerability locations like borders, long term care facilities, mental health centers and places where people congregate. Fourth, there must be in place measures like hand washing facilities, physical distancing, respiratory etiquette (facial masks) and temperature monitoring, to prevent transmission in workplaces. Fifth, there must be capacity to manage risk of exporting or importing cases from areas or communities with high risks of transmissions. And sixth, communities have a voice in the decisions that affect them, they participate, are informed and engaged in the transition to a full lifting of the lockdown.

A full lifting of the lockdown will only be possible when the virus is no longer considered a serious public health threat (meaning all WHO criteria have been met) and a vaccine or effective treatment is in place. But even with the full lifting of the lockdown society will have to remain alert and safety conscious and mass gatherings will only take place subject to health advice.