Europe looks past lockdowns as US and Japan brace for coronavirus trauma

By Jon Henley

Europe’s governments have begun to look ahead to the post-lockdown phase of their battle against Covid-19 as curves on the continent flatten, while the US braces for “peak death week” and Japan prepares to declare a state of national emergency.

A leaked interior ministry document in Germany, which on Monday reported its fourth straight drop in daily cases, revealed a list of government measures that officials believe should allow public life to gradually resume after the end of the country’s lockdown, currently scheduled for 19 April.

The measures include an obligation to wear masks in public, limits on public gatherings, and mechanisms to allow more than 80% of people an infected person has been in contact with to be traced within 24 hours of diagnosis. This should allow schools to reopen on a regional basis and strict border controls to be relaxed.

Austria, meanwhile, became the first EU country to publicly announce plans to lift its restrictions. “The aim is that from April 14 ... smaller shops up to 400 square metres, as well as hardware and garden stores, can open again, under strict security conditions,” the chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, said.

If the government’s timetable goes to plan, larger shops could reopen on 1 May and hotels, restaurants and other services from mid-May, Kurz said, adding that “everything will depend” on whether people continue to obey distancing rules this week.

Both Austria and Germany will rely on mobile phone apps to trace citizens’ movements and warn them of any potential risk of infection, local press have said. A Europe-wide app for the same purpose is reportedly in the pipeline.

Italy hopes to be back on the move soon after seeing virus cases reach a plateau.
Italy hopes to be back on the move soon after seeing virus cases reach a plateau. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP

Spain, meanwhile, which has recorded the second highest Covid-19 death toll in the world so far after Italy, reported a fourth consecutive daily decrease in its daily death tally as well as falls in hospitalisations and critical care cases.

While strict confinement rules introduced on 14 March will remain in force until 26 April, the government announced it is planning to widen coronavirus testing to include people without symptoms, as a first step towards slowly easing the lockdown.

“We are preparing ourselves for de-escalation, for which it will be very important to know who is contaminated,” said the foreign minister, Arancha González Laya.

Italy on Sunday reported 525 cases in one day, its lowest in two weeks. “The curve has reached a plateau and begun to descend,” said Silvio Brusaferro, head of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Italy’s top health institute. “If this is confirmed, we need to start thinking about the second phase.”

The health minister, Roberto Speranza, told the daily La Repubblica that the coming period was going to be hard. “There are difficult months ahead,” he said. “Our task is to create the conditions to live with the virus,” at least until a vaccine arrives.

The daily death toll in France, which went into lockdown later than Spain and Italy, also fell on Sunday, to 357 from 441 in the previous 24 hours. The health ministry said hospital and intensive care admissions were also declining, but warned people it was still essential to continue respecting strict confinement measures.

According to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, the virus has reached more than 210 countries and territories around the world, infecting 1.28 million people and killing more than 70,000. Nearly half of the world’s population is living in some form of lockdown.

Among other developments:

  • As 51 African countries reported 9,198 cases of Covid-19 and 414 deaths, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, called for unity and a massive aid effort.

  • The trajectory of infections in Iran appears to have started a “gradual” decline, the government said, but it warned the disease is far from being under control.

  • Indonesia recorded its biggest daily jump in cases, with 218 confirmed on Monday, while the Philippines recorded 414 new infections.

  • Russia also recorded its biggest daily jump with 954 new cases of the disease.

  • Germany will put all arriving travellers in quarantine for 14 days and is considering mandatory facemasks.

  • France is facing its deepest recession since the end of the second world war, the finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said.

But if curves are flattening in Europe, elsewhere there was little sign of a let-up. The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said on Monday the government planned to declare a state of emergency and proposed a $1tn stimulus package.

The Kabuki-cho district of Tokyo, an area that has seen a disproportionate number of Covid-19 coronavirus cases, yesterday.
The Kabuki-cho district of Tokyo, an area that has seen a disproportionate number of Covid-19 coronavirus cases, yesterday. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Pressure has increased on the government to take action as Tokyo announced a record 148 new cases on Sunday, followed by 83 more on Monday. Japan is unlikely to introduce a hard lockdown, but the government will aim to exert strong psychological pressure through requests and instructions.

The total number of positive cases in Japan has nearly doubled in the last seven days, with Tokyo the main hub. A rapid spread of the virus is a huge risk in the Japanese capital, a city of nearly 14 million, and Japan has one of world’s oldest populations, with nearly a third of the population - 36 million people - over the age of 65.

In the US, authorities have warned the worst is yet to come. Officials on Monday told the country to prepare for a deadly week as the accelerating US death toll, currently approaching 10,000, closed the gap with Italy’s and Spain’s.

“It’s going to be the peak hospitalisation, peak ICU week and, unfortunately, peak death week,” said Admiral Brett Giroir, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, raising the alarm in particular alarm for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Detroit.

The US total of 336,000 confirmed cases is by far the world’s largest and roughly twice as many people a day are dying in the US as in Spain and Italy.

Donald Trump suggested on Sunday the country was “starting to see light at the end of the tunnel”. But Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that “doesn’t take away from the fact that tomorrow, the next day, are going to look really bad”.

The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, on Monday urged governments to protect women from what he described as a horrifying rise in domestic violence as a consequence of the coronavirus. “For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes,” he said.

Guterres urged all governments to make “the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for Covid-19”.