How Are Countries Reopening? Firsthand Reports From Around the World
A snapshot of life on Earth under COVID-19 in early May.
Leave it to the Germans to come up with a sinuous, unpronounceable, and entirely perfect word to describe the slew of debates over how and when to reopen economies locked down due to the coronavirus: Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien, or opening discussion orgies.
These orgies have been unfolding in just about every country that has shut restaurants and schools, grounded flights, and required citizens to stay home. Despite general agreement with lockdown decisions, there are now heated debates about what the new normal should be—and how to get there.
That debate varies, of course, with the progress of the virus. China, where the outbreak originated, has slowly reopened Wuhan. New Zealand says the virus is “currently eliminated” there and is talking about resuming flights to Australia. Brazil locked down its first major cities this week, while other countries, such as Canada, Japan, and Sri Lanka, also tightened rules. And Africa, which was largely spared during the initial wave, is now facing a rising number of cases with only limited medical resources.
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Over the last two weeks, I emailed and texted friends, former colleagues, and acquaintances around the world—a network I’ve developed over two decades working in foreign policy—to learn how their societies were preparing to reopen. I heard from more than 70 people in 65 countries, who sent me anecdotes and press clips that provided a snapshot of life under COVID-19 in early May.
Everyone misses grandma…
People are universally missing their extended families, especially older relatives, who faced the most severe restrictions in some countries given their vulnerability to the virus. Switzerland recently allowed children under 10 to hug their grandparents again, and France eased its restrictions on nursing home visits. But folks in Britain were told to wait.
…but parents are fatigued by house-bound kids.
Spare a thought for parents who have been trapped indoors with their children for weeks. A frustrated American expat in Colombia said dogs can go outside for 20 minutes several times a day but kids across the country have not been allowed to leave the house for any reason at all. A little relief is coming: Starting May 11, children over 6 will be allowed outside three times a week—but only with an adult and only 30 minutes each time. Parents in Spain, who were under strict lockdown with their children since March 14, recently received a reprieve but in a rather bumbling fashion. On April 21, the Spanish government announced that kids aged 14 and under could go outside beginning April 27—but only to accompany a parent on an errand. Parents revolted, and hours later, the policy was amended to allow kids outdoors once a day for one hour and within less than a mile of home.
There is disagreement over reopening schools.
Some countries (such as France, Israel, and Slovenia) are starting to send little kids back to school, whereas others (like Germany, Greece, Portugal, Senegal, South Korea, and Vietnam) are focusing on older ones. Sweden kept young kids in school the entire time, while neighboring Denmark, Finland, and Norway are only now allowing them to resume their studies. Several (such as Pakistan and Turkey) will make decisions at the end of May, while others (including Paraguay and Peru) have scrapped in-person classes until December.
Given health concerns, some parents prefer to keep their children at home. In Australia, their right to do so varies by state. In Northern Ireland, the government closed schools until September, as its modeling showed that less than 10 percent of parents would return their kids sooner. Nicaragua has not closed schools, though some 40 percent of students are absent. In Sweden, two friends shared anecdotes about nervous neighbors who wanted to keep their children at home; in both cases, principals warned that failure to comply with mandatory attendance would have consequences.
The pandemic has prompted the Japanese government to consider overhauling its schedule entirely: The academic year traditionally begins in April, but there is now a debate about shifting the start to September.
Safety remains a priority, though some are promoting dubious methods. In Madagascar, the country’s president gave returning students face masks and bottles of herbal extract that he promised would protect them.
People are craving fresh air…
Confronted with stay-at-home orders, creative minds have sought ways around the rules. In Australia, people wore costumes to wheel their trash cans to the curb. An American expat in Spain promised her teary tween that for her 12th birthday she could help take the trash 50 yards to a communal receptacle across the courtyard; that special gift was scrapped after a police car parked nearby. To take advantage of exemptions allowing owners to walk their pets, one person in Romania took his fish on a walk, while a young woman put her cat in a bag to justify a trip to the mall. In Uganda, essential workers received stickers for their cars to bypass checkpoints; an expat said some people bought stickers from corrupt officials or printed their own, while others hired pregnant women to accompany them on errands under the guise of driving them to the hospital.
Many are savoring fresh air after weeks in quarantine. South Africans are allowed to exercise outside again, while Israelis can now venture a third of a mile for sports or prayer. Serbs over 65 can take daily one-hour walks and shop for groceries from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. A Bulgarian friend said parks have opened designated routes for pregnant women and accompanied children. In Colombia, people between the ages of 18 and 70 can exercise outside between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. New guidance in Spain is so complicated that residents need graphs to determine who is allowed outside when.
A Belgian friend said her compatriots were perplexed by the inclusion of kayaking on the list of newly allowable activities, with many preferring to line up for hours after the McDonald’s drive-thru reopened. Perhaps they were following the advice of the local potato industry, which urged Belgians to eat more french fries given excess supply.
…and long for a haircut.
A Greek friend shared a poll showing haircuts topped the list of most desirable activities when lockdown ended. Swedes benefited from salons that remained open, with a friend in Malmo joking that his compatriots could be distinguished from their Nordic neighbors based on their tidy heads. In Germany, hair salons reopened on May 4—but with so many manes that need tending, wait times of one month or more for appointments are common. (Little tip from the Germans: Get on the waitlist now.) In Ireland, where salons aren’t slated to open until late July, a black market has emerged.
Some simply want a stiff drink.
South Africans haven’t been allowed to buy alcohol since the lockdown began on March 26. A friend said vineyards in the Cape region are going bust, many of their workers are starving, and sober locals are trying to extract alcohol from hand sanitizer or make pineapple beer at home. Cigarettes were supposed to be available by May 1, then became off-limits again. When Indians were allowed to purchase alcohol this week after 40 days of lockdown, there were chaotic scenes of excited crowds that led local governments to close stores and impose a special alcohol tax. When an Australian friend’s husband tried to buy gin, champagne, and beer, the shop clerk told him to put one bottle back due to sales limits to prevent panic-buying. Finns did not face such restrictions, as they continued their practice of kalsarikannit—getting “pantsdrunk” at home in their underwear.
Pubs in Ireland are expected to be shuttered until Aug. 10. And although bars remained open in Sweden, a friend admitted that the prime minister’s admonition to “use common sense” when social distancing was more challenging after a few pints.
Believers are anxious to worship together.
In Cuba, the coronavirus led the government to relent on its decades-long opposition to televising Mass. In Greece, churches will reopen in mid-May with social distancing restrictions, but even the most open-minded archbishops are reluctant to deviate from the traditional practice of sharing the communion cup. In Croatia, churches can resume Mass with no limit on attendance, even though businesses and secular institutions must restrict their numbers. Italian priests are furious at the government’s refusal to reopen churches for anything other than small funerals.
COVID-19 restrictions are hampering Muslim celebrations of Ramadan. A Jordanian friend said working at home has made fasting easier this year. An Iraqi friend said his compatriots are frustrated by their inability to organize and afford traditionally large iftar dinners. Several countries (such as Niger and Tunisia) relaxed curfew restrictions to allow extra time for shopping.
Saudi Arabia continues to face questions about pilgrimages to holy cities. The kingdom partially lifted the daily curfew on April 26, but 24-hour restrictions remain for Mecca. The annual hajj is due in late July, but the government has warned against purchasing plane tickets. According to a longtime Saudi Arabia watcher, it is torn between responsible medical practice and the loss of revenue and prestige.
Meanwhile, Tanzanian President John Magufuli remains an outlier in Africa by resisting a nationwide lockdown, though he did fire the head of the national laboratory after imported test kits returned positive results on a goat and a pawpaw. Instead, he is telling citizens that prayer can fight the virus and keep the economy moving.
Others simply want to eat.
While some people in Western countries lament missing ingredients on grocery shelves, many in less developed places worry about starvation. Press reports have described desperate Kenyans stampeding for flour and cooking oil, Indian workers lining up across their country to receive bread and vegetables, and poor Colombians hanging red flags from their windows to signify hunger.
Social distancing and reduced demand are hitting the service sector, which comprises over half of Latin American GDP. In Mexico, an expat said nearly half the population lives off the informal economy with day-to-day earnings: If they don’t work, they don’t eat. A Peruvian student living in the United States said his government introduced strict quarantine measures but markets remained filled with people and the number of cases soared to the region’s second-highest. According to a Cuban American friend, the difficulty of finding basic goods means Cubans have little choice but to make daily trips to the grocery and wait in long lines.
There are similar challenges across Africa, compounded for East Africans by the wave of locusts threatening livelihoods and food security. There is growing debate, according to several friends across the continent, about the appropriateness of the Western-influenced lockdown model for African economies. As millions of urban poor subsist hand to mouth under cramped living conditions, continued income and social safety nets can save lives too.
And stay alive.
Libya is struggling to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak amid an active war, reports a humanitarian friend. Warring groups are targeting medical facilities and cutting water supplies, with artillery hitting a hospital last month that was designated for treating coronavirus patients. Doctors and nurses are torn between treating those with the virus and treating war wounds. An Afghan friend said his government’s response to the pandemic is hindered by a poor health care system, rising food prices, a worsening security environment, and porous borders with hard-hit neighbors (including Iran and China).
Past experiences have shaped compliance with restrictions.
In countries like Norway, the Czech Republic, and Japan, friends said negative experiences in the 1930s created an aversion to heavy-handed policing. British friends said compatriots follow rules from a sense of politeness and aversion to social shaming, with some pleased to see their former prime minister lining up at the grocery. A South African friend said some people are gatvol (local slang for “fed up”) but have continued to comply.
Those living in countries with previous traumas have generally followed official instructions, including Bosnians who survived a war and Mexicans who experienced earthquakes and the H1N1 outbreak. Israelis have an undying belief that Jewish people will survive this crisis, as they have so many before. Since the pandemic struck during Passover, a friend said many are reciting a line from a famous 1990s pop song: “We overcame Pharaoh, and we’ll overcome this.”
Despite their reputation as rule-breakers, Greeks have largely complied. After 10 years of outsiders telling them to reform, a friend said his fellow citizens are basking in international praise for limiting the number of cases and deaths.
Authorities enforced rules with varying degrees of enthusiasm…
In Israel, police forces—including a helicopter and Jet Skis—pulled a surfer out of the water near a Tel Aviv beach after he violated the lockdown. Parisian officers shut down a spontaneous dance party, while authorities in South Africa arrested a couple getting married on the beach with friends. Police in Spain bleached a beach to sanitize it for children’s use, and an American expat in Valencia reported low-flying helicopters with bullhorn-wielding officers warning that rooftops were for drying laundry, not family recreation. Meanwhile, a police helicopter in Canada took pictures of six women having a socially distanced dance party and tweeted their gratitude for obeying the rules.
El Salvador is struggling to enforce its stay-at-home order, with police and armed forces detaining over 4,000 people for violating the order and throwing them in quarantine centers; this has resulted in a constitutional crisis, as the president has ignored Supreme Court orders to stop. In Uganda, people are wary of the heavy-handed approach of the Local Defense Unit, an armed paramilitary group recruited to help enforce the quarantine.
…while dancing police officers provided safety tips with a smile.
In Bogotá, police blasted dance tunes to encourage citizens to exercise. Police in Mallorca, Spain, played guitar to entertain the homebound. Officers in Cajamarca, Peru, danced with a coffin on their shoulders to remind people to stay home. Dancing pallbearers in Ghana similarly conveyed the seriousness of the outbreak. Police in the Indian state of Kerala made a dance video about hand-washing; their counterparts in Chennai wore “corona helmets” to remind people to stay home.
Some citizens have protested from their windows…
In Brazil, some people are banging pots and pans every evening to protest the president’s refusal to back a more stringent lockdown, as advocated by opposition politicians. In Serbia, citizens make noise from their windows every evening at 8:05 p.m. Despite rigid quarantine measures, the country has suffered more infections and fatalities than others with fewer restrictions. In Spain, residents have continued applauding health workers at 8 p.m., but an hour later they bang caceroladas (casserole dishes) to protest the government’s response.
…while others have returned to the streets.
Lebanon took early steps to lock down the country, resulting in a low number of COVID-19 cases. Yet protesters recently returned to the streets to protest the failure of the new government, formed in January, to address economic woes. France, rocked by yellow vest protests since late 2018, has seen people defy the strict lockdown to protest the government’s inadequate handling of the health crisis and its adverse effect on working-class families.
Meanwhile, some Syrians in areas loyal to the government demonstrated in support of the regime—but against local efforts to disinfect communities.
People are conflicted about technological solutions.
Asia was quick to employ technology. South Korea created a publicly available “travel log” that let citizens determine whether they crossed paths with infected people. Some countries (like Australia, Singapore, and Vietnam) have developed voluntary contact tracing apps, while others (such as China and Hong Kong) are using mandatory devices.
Europeans are debating whether to temporarily cede privacy for health protection. A Swiss friend said his compatriots are unhappy about surveillance from major telecommunications operators but said a recent poll found 2 out of 3 people surveyed would be open to an app that would anonymously track their movement. In Germany, an American expat reported discussions over whether contact tracing apps should gather data in a centralized or decentralized way. Britain and the Czech Republic are rolling out pilot projects.
There is little debate in places accustomed to government surveillance. A Serbian friend said the government hinted it can track the phones of quarantined people but few believe it is actually happening. An expat in Romania said locals are used to—or ignore—state monitoring. An expat in Vietnam said surveillance is “pretty much expected” in the single-party communist state. She said one foreigner who escaped quarantine was tracked down via security cameras while another was caught when he checked into a hotel that reported his presence to a central registry. In Israel, a friend reported general acceptance of state surveillance, within limits. The domestic intelligence service initially tracked everyone’s cell phones after the initial outbreak, but then the highest court ordered it to stop after the curve began to flatten.
Yet they trust their own Anthony Fauci.
Malta has Gauci—Charmaine Gauci, the superintendent for public health, whose daily updates provide information and reassurance. Malaysia’s hero is Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director-general of health, who has risen above the political fray to provide sensible medical advice. Ana Lucía de la Garza Barroso, Mexico’s director of epidemiological research, delivers smart daily briefings yet has set off an entirely different debate. Attracting attention for her Scarlett Johansson-esque good looks, she has created frustration among Mexican feminists over the objectification of powerful women.
Uganda’s health minister, Jane Ruth Aceng, went viral after smacking down a foreigner at the airport who challenged the government’s quarantine measures. Greek Health Ministry spokesperson Sotiris Tsiodras has approval ratings over 94 percent. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg held a special virtual press briefing for children, while New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has provided folksy Facebook live updates.
The German virologist Christian Drosten hosts a top-rated daily podcast, yet he has received death threats as people accuse him of destroying the economy. And Australians are tuning into Coronacast, a daily podcast by Norman Swan, who had his moment of global internet fame after explaining how farting could spread the virus.
As countries begin to reopen, the moment of truth has come.
Amanda Sloat is a Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. She is also a fellow with the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. She served in the Barack Obama administration as the deputy assistant secretary of state for southern Europe and eastern Mediterranean affairs, as well as senior advisor to the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf region. Twitter: @A_Sloat
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