The Financial Express

When it is right time to open up economy

Nilratan Halder   | Published: May 14, 2020 21:32:50

When it is right time to open up economy

With Covid-19 cases and deaths dropping substantially, many European countries have started easing lockdowns and opening up their economies -albeit on a limited scale. Even Germany and Russia have begun relaxing lockdown rules amid an unrelenting upsurge in coronavirus cases -the latter recording 10,000 plus cases for 10 straight days. The Trump administration also made its intention clear of opening up businesses at the time the United States of America had daily deaths well over 2,000.

At a time when preparations are afoot for reopening economies in most countries with the exception of India where the lockdown has been further extended, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has once again put forward three questions for governments the world over to respond to before easing the lockdown and allowing financial activities. These three criteria follow the earlier six the WHO had  advanced for consideration. Essentially, these three summarise the earlier six. These are: 1) Is the pandemic under control? 2) Is the healthcare system able to cope with a resurgence of cases that may arise after relaxing certain measures? 3) Is the public health surveillance system able to detect and manage the cases and their contacts, and identify a resurgence of cases?   

Only two countries New Zealand and Iceland appear to have fulfilled the criteria set by the WHO for opening up their economies so far. On Monday last, New Zealand health officials recorded only three coronavirus cases nationwide, laying the groundwork for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to move from level three to level-two restrictions. The prime minister stated that only 90 New Zealanders were infected with the virus with only two in hospitals. And this was achieved through hard work, she asserted. The plan is to open up step by step -- from Thursday May 14, retail businesses, hairdressing, cafes, gyms, cinemas, malls and playgrounds. Also people will be able to socialize with families and friends outside their households. Then from May 18, schools and early learning centres will open.

Iceland is a small island country with only a total population of 366, 130 (March 31). It last recorded a death on April 19 and two infections on May 6 last. The country's Prime Minister Katrin Jacobsdottir in an interview with Christiane Amanpour of the CNN expressed her government's effective preparation for meeting the challenge. It is credited with the highest testing proportion along with contact tracing and quarantine of people -Icelandic or others - arriving in the country population-wise. Part of the preparation was making decisions on the advice of health scientists and help from organizations like de-CODE genetics, an Icelandic biotech company for extensive screening.   

Granted that New Zealand with a population of nearly five million and Iceland with just one-15th of this size can screen, isolate and contact-trace better than most other populous nations. But at the same time some of the richer countries including the USA with highly advanced medicare systems failed to respond in time to the emergency arising out of coronavirus attack. They lost the precious time gap of at least two months since the Wuhan virus outbreak had been made known to the world. Many did not even take the pandemic threat seriously. They are now paying for the lapse and indifference.

At a three and a half hours' hearing of the Senate's Health, Education, Labour and Pensions committee on Tuesday, the warning issued by US top infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthoni Fauci and also a key member of the White House coronavirus task force exposed the difference between political prerogatives and scientific obligation. President Trump claimed the day before, "We have met the moment, and we have prevailed". He referred to management of the crisis but later on veered on to 'leading the world in testing'. Republican senator Mitt Romney rebuffed the president commenting that the country's record in uncovering and tracking the virus was 'nothing to celebrate about'.

Even his leadership has come under intense scrutiny with the New York Governor Andrew Cuomo holding the federal government responsible for allocation of large funds to big companies instead of the poor and jobless who need food for survival. So American rush for reopening economy is undesirable and as Dr Fauci terms it 'premature' risking more deaths and infections that the country may not be able to control.

More worrying is the fact that Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have its origin, has once again reported corona cases -10 until Tuesday. South Korea too has a surge of cases after long decline. Wuhan has announced its plan for testing its entire population of 10 million in just 10 days. For China this may be possible but not for other countries.

Where does Bangladesh stand in this context? Already eased-off lockdown and limited opening up of businesses have shown how careless people can be. Barring a few exceptions in the capital, most other shopping centres around the country are struggling with heavy rush of shoppers. On the fourth day of the opening  of  shopping malls, the country has witnessed record rise in both deaths from and infection of coronavirus. In fact, the decision of reopening comes at a time when both infection and death are peaking. This does not bode well either for public health or for the economy. Dr, Fauci's warning  may  be  applicable for Bangladesh too.  



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