‘This Virus May Never Go Away’ – Countries That Reopen Early May Face Strong Waves Of COVID-19 Resurgence, Warns WHO
Some cautious shoppers in Geneva’s Train Station wear face masks after Switzerland enters the second phase of reopening

Countries that reopen while COVID-19 is still circulating widely will likely face strong waves of virus resurgence, and then have to reinstate severe lockdown measures. However, the cyclical relaxation and reinstatement of some public health measures, such as bans on mass gatherings or school closures, may also be normal as countries learn how to track and control the virus.

At a WHO briefing on Wednesday, Mike Ryan, WHO Health Emergencies Executive Director warned that “this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities.  This virus may never go away,”  he added, comparing to other new infections that have emerged only in recent decades, notably HIV. “HIV has never gone away… but we have found drugs and therapies that … can allow people to live long and healthy lives.”

After a sharp spike in cases, Lebanon on Wednesday reinstated stay-at-home orders, re-shuttered restaurants, and closed temples after easing restrictions in April. That followed patterns in a number of other countries including Algeria and the Japanese island of Hokkaido – which had reopened businesses and schools, only to see a spike in cases that forced further closures.

A new cluster of coronavirus cases also was reported in Wuhan China, the original epicenter of the outbreak, on Sunday – the first since the city reopened in late April. City health officials announced an ambitious plan to test all 11.5 million city residents in the next ten days on Tuesday. Mass gatherings were banned, and travel restrictions were reinstated in Jilin, another city in China, this week after a cluster of cases was identified. 

The South Korean capital of Seoul also delayed reopening schools and shut down bars and clubs, following a spike in cases last week that was linked back to just one man. At least 85 confirmed cases were linked to the man who had visited a series of nightclubs last week.

“Some [of these cases] are cautionary tales and some represent actually, the kind of things we expect. It’s all about scale and it’s all about how much you understand the problem,” said WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies Mike Ryan in a Wednesday press briefing. “What we all fear is a vicious cycle of public health disaster followed by an economic disaster followed by a public health disaster followed by economic disaster.”

“If you reopen in the presence of a high degree of virus transmission, then that transmission may accelerate. If that virus transmission accelerates, and you don’t have the systems to detect it, it will be days or weeks before you know something’s gone wrong. And by the time that happens, you’re back into a situation where your only response is another lockdown,” said Ryan.

The purpose of lockdowns, Ryan explained, was to keep people from coming into contact with each other frequently, therefore curbing the spread of the virus. 

“If you can get the day to day case numbers to the lowest possible level, and get as much virus out of the community as possible, when you open, you will tend to have less transmission, or, much less risk,” said Ryan.

Switzerland Mobilizes Money To Address ‘Unimaginable Levels of Poverty’ During Phased Reopening

Meanwhile, Switzerland was grappling with the fallout of a COVID-19 economic crisis, including what one journalist described as “unimaginable levels of poverty” as one of Europe’s most affluent countries reopened for business again.

Many Swiss cafes and restaurants, which had been anticipating seeing regulars again, were stunned to have barely any customers. Almost one-third of Geneva’s cafes will be unable to reopen due to poor business prospects.

On the other hand, more than 1600 packets of free food were distributed in one central Geneva location in just six hours, mostly to undocumented migrants and those who had lost their jobs due to coronavirus. Queues were over 200 metres long, albeit with proper social distancing measures between the waiting customers. 

New cases in Switzerland have continued to drop or stabilize as the country entered the second phase of its deconfinement plan on Monday. The country of about 9 million people has so far reported 30,433 confirmed cases with 1,564 deaths, one of the highest per capita case rates in Europe. Geneva, the nearby canton of Vaud, Zurich as well as Valais and Ticino, which abut the border with Italy are the most affected cantons.  

Less-affected cities, however, have seen anti-lockdown protests demanding faster relaxation of anti-coronavirus measures. Police broke up protests in Bern, Zurich, St. Gallen and Basel, which disregarded the ban on gatherings of more than five people. This move was criticised by the Swiss branch of Amnesty international, which called it a violation of freedom of expression. 

In light of the economic need, Swiss Federal Council sanctioned 57 billion CHF to be released in urgent credits — the largest amount ever to be released in such a format. Additionally, around 8 billion CHF is expected to be spent on short-term workers compensation, bringing the total financial package to more than 65 billion CHF. 

In addition, the Swiss Solidarity Fund has raised over CHF 37 million to help those most in need, including socioeconomically strained groups, older people, people with disabilities and the homeless. 

“It is a priority to provide assistance to individuals and families who are not or insufficiently covered by the Federal Council’s assistance measures,” stated Fabienne Vermeulen, the Head Of Swiss Programmes. The money has been distributed in the form of food aid, financial assistance, care services and community engagement through over 80 already-existing Swiss agencies, ranging from the Swiss Red Cross and Caritas.

Nevertheless, the long queues for food might be a new reality for Switzerland, warns journalist Grègoire Barbey, as the country faces “unimaginable levels of poverty.”

KTX trains undergo disinfection for COVID-19 at Seoul Station, Seoul
New Cases Spur Fears Of A Second Wave in China and South Korea 

Wuhan, China which had not recorded a single new case since April 3, has instituted a 10-day testing plan in response to a cluster of new cases, and will be testing all of its 11 million inhabitants for coronavirus. The reemergence of the virus has already had ramifications for the local government. State media reported Monday that Zhang Yuxin, chief official of Changqing, the area in Wuhan where the new cases had been detected, was removed from his post “for failures in epidemic prevention and control work.”

China recorded 17 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, 5 of which were in Wuhan, the country’s coronavirus epicentre, triggering fears of a second wave. Seven others were ‘imported’, coming in on a flight that stopped at Inner Mongolia for testing. 

The remaining cases were detected in Jilin, close to the borders with Russia and North Korea. The city has been put under partial lockdown, sealing borders and cutting off transport links, as well as closing cinemas, indoor gyms, internet cafes and other enclosed entertainment venues. Pharmacies have also been asked to report sales of antiviral and fever medication to authorities. The city’s four million inhabitants can leave the city only if they have tested negative for COVID-19 in the past 48 hours and complete an unspecified period of ‘strict self-isolation’.

In South Korea, Seoul officials are trying to track down about 5,000 people who had visited clubs and bars in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district during the same period when the COVID-19 infected bar-hopper had been in the area. The outbreak triggered South Korea’s steepest daily increase in new coronavirus infections in more than a month, threatening a broader easing of the country’s social distancing measures. The country has enjoyed widespread international praise for its efficient mass testing, high-tech contact tracing and social distancing measures. This new incident puts those measures to a test, yet again. 

 

Image Credits: Republic of Korea (Kim Sun-joo), HP-Watch/Svet Lustig Vijay.