COVID-19: Going out or staying in — the post-lockdown dilemma

COVID-19: Going out or staying in — the post-lockdown dilemma

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A group of people play basketball in the middle of 16th Street on Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington D.C., June 13, 2020. (Reuters)

Around the world, many countries are starting to lift the restrictions designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Many leaders hope that these steps will allow economies to recover quickly. The success of economic recovery will depend, to a large extent, on whether people feel comfortable resuming optional activities, such as eating out at restaurants, vacationing, attending events, and shopping for fun. 

Earlier in the pandemic, many countries implemented border controls and closed businesses and schools. These restrictions badly hurt economies, especially the hospitality and tourism sectors. A recent OECD report forecast that the international tourism economy might decline by 60 to 80 percent in 2020. 

Many countries still have significant restrictions, including external border controls, some business closures or reduced capacity, and social distancing requirements. Some countries are lifting restrictions based on metrics that ensure that COVID-19 infections are well in decline. Other countries had imposed more limited restrictions and are now moving quickly to lift them, prioritizing economic recovery and individual freedoms over fighting the pandemic. 

Allowing businesses to reopen and ending travel bans will be critical, but another essential factor in recovery will be consumer confidence and demand. Returning to work or school might be necessary or even mandatory, but will people be willing to engage in optional activities that are important to overall economic recovery? 

Multiple factors will determine the extent to which people engage in going out to restaurants, venues, parties, and more. Individuals’ personal situations vary. Some feel that they or loved ones are particularly vulnerable to the virus. People who knew many individuals who became seriously ill with COVID-19 might be more cautious than those who only heard about it in the news. Individuals’ personal risk assessment and tolerance for risk will affect their decisions.

Countries that responded to the pandemic quickly and effectively, and kept rates low, are likely to have more success reopening. Countries that experienced higher infection and mortality rates are more likely to struggle. Much will depend on whether countries experience new waves of infection after reopening. In the US, multiple states that moved to quickly reopen in May are now seeing significant increases in infection rates (increased testing may play a role but does not fully account for the increases), and similar trends have occurred in several countries that lifted restrictions before their epidemics were under firm control. 

However, perception matters as much as reality. In some countries, many individuals question the statistics on infection and mortality rates; some believe that media outlets have an ulterior motive to exaggerate the rates. Individuals who think the pandemic is exaggerated are more likely to feel confident engaging in public activities than those who acknowledge that the pandemic has been a serious problem. 

Peer pressure and cultural expectations also play a major role. In communities where many people believe that the pandemic is a serious threat and support social distancing measures, people are more likely to avoid large gatherings, stand apart and wear a face covering to avoid judgment from their peers. While that might make it harder for businesses to attract large crowds initially, it might support a sustainable, gradual reopening, as cautious people feel comfortable with the measures in place. On the other hand, in communities where people view face coverings negatively and see standing apart as antisocial, fewer people are likely to follow restrictions. This might help restaurants and venues fill their seats in the short term, but also might significantly delay when more cautious individuals feel they can participate.

Trust is going to be a key driver. People will respond partly based on whether the media outlets and authorities they trust tell them it is safe to go out or not. In communities where different people trust different messages, reopening society and businesses will be complex. People who trust their government’s response to the pandemic are more likely to actively re-engage than those who do not trust their government’s pandemic management. Trust in communities will be a factor, too; cautious individuals who trust their friends, families and neighbors to practice social distancing and wear face coverings are more likely to go out in public than those who perceive that their communities are not being careful. 

Countries that responded to the pandemic quickly and effectively, and kept rates low, are likely to have more success reopening.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Trust in businesses matters. People are more likely to go out if they believe that restaurants, hotels, venues, and so forth are taking precautions, cleaning, and limiting the number of customers. At a time when fear is high, trust is fragile, creating risks for businesses. For example, there are multiple stories of passengers on various US airlines who believed that precautions would be taken but found themselves on a packed plane. While most US domestic flights are still far from full, stories of those that are packed in the middle of a pandemic undermine trust. 

Political and business leaders who want more customers to return to normal public behavior will find some who are ready to take on the risks, but will have to build trust among those who are cautious. Countries that have demonstrated success in keeping infection rates low and communities that have built public support for social distancing measures are more likely to recover quickly and sustainably. Those that still struggle to contain the virus, which have major divides between individuals who are ready to go out and those who have concerns, and especially those that experience a resurgence of infections after initial reopenings will face a longer, more halting recovery. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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