Commentary: Europe limiting virus spread with ‘smart’ lockdowns

Its nations are tailoring lockdowns to specific outbreaks; but it requires testing, tracing and mask use.

By Ferdinando Giugliano / Bloomberg Opinion

European Union countries are experimenting with new ways of dealing with the coronavirus. Germany, Portugal and Italy have all enforced selective or “smart” lockdowns, shutting down smaller regions in response to new outbreaks as opposed to bringing their entire countries to a halt.

This approach is the only hope of returning to a more normal life as we wait for a vaccine. However, it also puts a much larger onus on the public sector compared to generalized lockdowns. Health officials have to ensure small outbreaks do not get out of control and force the need for harsher measures.

Germany has seen a number of outbreaks in meatpacking plants, leading local governments to declare new lockdowns, such as in the municipality of Guetersloh, and enforce partial lockdowns, such as in the nearby town of Warendorf. Over the past few months, Italy has managed to contain some small flare-ups, including one in the tiny region of Molise and one in Rome, without having to impose additional restrictions.

But the southern region of Calabria has recently imposed quarantine on an area of the seaside town of Palmi, after a handful of cases were reported. And after a worrying new spike in cases, Portugal has ordered stores in parts of the Lisbon region to shut down early, among other restrictions.

Some of these cases show striking similarities. For example, many of these new outbreaks originated in migrant communities facing overcrowded living quarters or unsafe working conditions. This was true of one meat-processing plant owned by the Toennies Group in Germany, where more than a thousand employees, most of them migrants from Eastern Europe, came down with Covid-19. This was also the case of the much smaller outbreak in Italy’s central region of Marche.

It was similar in Portugal: At the end of May, an outbreak emerged in Lisbon’s Jamaica neighborhood, which was already struggling with a housing crisis. Health-care facilities are another potential source of contagion, as was the case for the recent flare-up in Rome.

So far, the authorities have managed to contain these outbreaks. In Italy, the number of new infections has been stable in the low hundreds for the past few weeks, despite a substantial reopening of the economy. In Germany, the reproduction rate — “R” rate — of the coronavirus, which measures how many people a virus carrier infects on average, shot up to nearly 3 per person last weekend, well above the level of 1 needed to believe the outbreak is under control. Fortunately, this factor has begun to decline. According to the country’s Robert Koch Institute, it also does not appear to be too alarming since the overall number of cases remains relatively low.

This tailored approach to lockdowns is in no way a repudiation of the more draconian measures most European countries enforced earlier. In fact, the current strategy can only work because Europe has largely brought new infections under control. It doesn’t look as feasible for countries such as the U.S. and Brazil, where new infections are still on the rise in many areas.

Smart lockdowns require the collaboration of citizens: Wearing masks and maintaining social distancing are two ways to reduce the risk of a new surge in cases. However, much of the burden falls on governments. They have to identify new cases early through rapid testing and contact tracing in order to circumscribe contagion.

Getting more people to download contact-tracing apps would help on this front (not enough have done so in France and Italy), but the authorities will also have to ensure local health-care systems have enough staff to trace infections effectively. Finally, they’ll need to manage the process of reopening borders carefully, especially when it comes to countries that have not yet kept the virus in check.

Of course, all of this may not be enough. A few “superspreader events” or even individual “superspreaders” could prove particularly challenging to manage. But if Europe is successful in this new phase of its fight against the pandemic, the economic and social benefits could be huge.

Only a vaccine or a benign mutation will ensure that the Covid-19 threat is over. Until then, smart lockdowns are the best hope we have.

Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns and editorials on European economics for Bloomberg View. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.

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