Coronavirus crackdowns around the world make U.S. rules look lenient

Lebanon is on total lockdown, Hong Kong is using electronic wristbands to enforce quarantines, and Russia has developed a smartphone app to track and make sure people with symptoms don’t leave their homes.

Economic blowback tied to coronavirus shutdowns in the United States has prompted American protesters to call for an easing of restrictions in a growing number of cities, but the policies in place here have actually been far less oppressive than those in most other parts of the world.

Take the Philippines. In Manila, only one person per household is allowed outside for essential errands such as grocery shopping, and that person must have a government-issued pass. Belgians have also got it bad. They’re allowed to social distance with only four people — the same four, all the time.

Analysts say the root cause of the more severe measures taken by foreign governments is that those governments have acted with the goal of eradicating the virus entirely from their populations. U.S. federal and state leaders, in contrast, have embraced restrictions aimed more at slowing the spread to avoid overwhelming the nation’s health-care system.

Few dispute the deep economic and social hardships Americans are enduring, but specialists say the restrictions here pale in comparison to what’s gone on around much of the world since China first announced a lockdown of Wuhan city, where the virus began.

“In Wuhan, there were armed police officers, more restrictions, how often you could go out, how strongly it was enforced. Even in England…[people] were only able to exercise a certain period outside their houses,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and an expert in emerging infectious disease.

“Our economic shutdowns were really calibrated to make sure our hospitals didn’t go into crisis,” Dr. Adalja told The Washington Times in an interview Thursday. “There shouldn’t have been any belief we were going to get our cases down to zero. Even though there was definitely a lot of concern about what got deemed essential or non-essential. In general, there was much more permitted in the United States than in other countries.”

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11, leading dozens of nations in nearly every region of the world to implement some form of lockdown to prevent the virus from spreading.

But the policies varied greatly from country to country. In some cases they sparked swift outrage, prompting governments to quickly backtrack.

At one point early in the crisis, Serbia established “dog-walking hours,” setting aside just one hour each day for citizens to take their canines outside. The policy ignited fury and frustration among pet owners and was later abandoned.

At peak lockdown in Colombia last month, people were allowed to leave their houses only on designated days, depending on the number of their national ID card.

Panama established rules that allowed women to leave their homes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while men could go outside only on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Everyone was forced to stay home on Sunday.

One of the most startling policies emerged just days ago in Belgium, where the government began on Mother’s Day to allow households to invite four guests to their home. Two sets of four people could then form a so-called “corona bubble” but could have no interactions with anyone else.

Specialists said the policy introduced a whole new set of social problems that could potentially drive wedges between families.

“If one family can have contacts with one family for Mother’s Day, we have to make a choice, either the mother or the mother-in-law,” Karen Phalet, a professor in psychology at the Catholic University of Leuven, told the Guardian newspaper last week. “It’s a hard choice for some families. Is it children’s friends? Is it parents or is it grandparents who have the priority?”

In the U.S., popular anger has risen against the restrictions implemented by state and local authorities, and citizens have demanded that businesses reopen and life return to some semblance of normal. One boisterous rally in Pennsylvania even included an excavating company’s truck cab painted with the message “Jesus is my vaccine” that blew its horn as it drove past the gathering.

Some public officials have openly joined the revolt. In Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, political leaders in six counties this week defied Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders and began to reopen.

While U.S. rules may be lax compared to many other nations, some analysts say blanket shutdowns issued in many American states — the complete shuttering of gyms, stores, restaurants, and extreme social distancing measures — were still so broad that eventual public backlash was inevitable.

“Governors were left with a very blunt tool to use,” Dr. Adalja said. “You can see with many states issuing exemptions and allowing things to open back up earlier versus later, there was a recognition that this could be more precision-guided.”

“Now that cases in many states are going down,” he continued, “they can move forward at a much better place than they were back in March and decide which of the socially distancing recommendations were useful, which ones were not, rather than do it again in a blanket manner.”

A majority of U.S. states, from Maine to Arizona, have begun a partial reopening of barber shops, theaters and gyms.

However, the first states that implemented stay-at-home orders, California, New York, Illinois, Washington and New Jersey, are continuing to implement strict measures in an ongoing effort to contain the spread of the virus, according to data compiled by the New York Times. Michigan, Delaware and Maryland have joined these states in continuing to uphold their stay-at-home orders.

Los Angeles, which has seen the highest number of coronavirus cases in California, reopened beaches this week with strict social distancing guidelines and requirements to wear face masks when not in the water.

Data shows that new cases in some of the hardest-hit cities, including New York, are beginning to decline.

But new hot spots are also emerging in some southern and western states, leading federal health officials this week to warn that nation could see a major resurgence of the virus in the fall if authorities move too quickly with their reopening plans.

There have been more than 1.4 million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., 85,149 deaths and 243,430 recoveries.

The World Health Organization has repeatedly urged countries and cities to refrain from prematurely reopening businesses in an effort to prevent a resurgence of the health crisis. It has advised lifting restrictions in phases to assess whether the virus is continuing to spread.

With that as a backdrop, the U.S. is not alone as it itches to get back to life as it once was.

Germany this week allowed hairdressers, playgrounds, churches and museums to reopen, while all restaurants will be able to resume service later this month.

Despite Russia having reported the highest number of cases in Europe, President Vladimir Putin has ended the country-wide lockdown there and said people can return to work on a conditional basis.

South Koreans have been told to return to normal activities, even amid evidence of a spike in new cases from nightclub goers. China’s Wuhan Province, the epicenter of the virus, also has reimposed some restrictions after a recent uptick in cases.

Such recurrences, Dr. Adalja said, are to be expected and don’t necessarily mean that blanket shutdowns need to once again be implemented. “As people socially interact, case counts are going to inevitably rise because the virus is present,” he said. “But hopefully learning from these months in the spring, policymakers and governors will know which of the social distancing recommendations are most impactful, and there will be much more precision-guided, rather than blanket [policies].”

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