The balance between easing restrictions too early and reviving the economy look set to dominate national debates as nations look for a way out from the current lockdown.
As global coronavirus cases surpassed the three million mark, countries around the world are looking for ways to loosen restrictions and restart their beleaguered economies.
With no blueprint of the best ways to re-open society, nations are tentatively experimenting with how far and how quickly they should go towards a new form of normalcy.
Hard-hit European countries, after weeks of lockdown, are setting out preliminary plans towards re-opening their countries.
Spain recently announced that different regions would relax restrictions at different paces and hope for a “new normality” by the end of June.
The dilemma for most countries is if they open up too quickly they could face a feared second wave of the virus.
In an article earlier in April, the internationally respected medical journal The Lancet warned that the premature relaxation of restrictions could see a second wave emerging, warning governments to be cautious of such a move.
Singapore was initially heralded as a success story for stoping the spread of the virus but in recent weeks there has been a spike in infections, indicating that the virus could linger in the population.
But when is the right time to end a lockdown and restart the economy?
With the virus ricocheting around the world, it’s insufficient for one country to fully lift restrictions while others are still grappling with the virus, as it could easily make its way back. And sealing a country off from the rest of the world is not a viable solution either.
We are already seeing countries past their peak infection rate planning for the removal of some restrictions.
Italy has announced that the construction and manufacturing sector will re-open on May 4, with retailers and museums following later in May, and in June the last to open will be restaurants and hair salons.
With more than 27,000 deaths, Italy’s count is the highest in Europe and second only to the US overall.
But experts are wary of setting a timeline on re-opening, preferring a broad and bespoke timetable. The key mantra over the next few months from politicians will be to trust the science and the experts despite growing frustration amongst their populations.
Before any government lifts restrictions, the following preliminary criteria would need to be applied according to the World Health Organisation (WHO): Firstly whether the number of infections been falling consistently for a period of 14 days, the generally accepted incubation period of the virus; secondly, whether hospitals have the necessary equipment for staff and patients in the event of a second wave without relying on emergency measures such as field hospitals; and lastly whether countries are in a position to carry out mass testing, tracing and monitor infections.
Yet there is doubt whether mass testing is feasible. South Korea which has praised for its quick and easy testing infrastructure has only managed to test a little over 600,000.
Countries like Italy, Spain and the UK which have seen their healthcare services pushed to the brink of collapse are unlikely to be in a position to divert resources towards mass testing, at least for the foreseeable future.
The science is still out
Researchers from US universities, however, are working on another question: How much more can people freely move around without triggering major resurgences in the outbreak?
Still in its early stages, the question raises the prospect that social life is unlikely to return to normal for the foreseeable future.
Carried out by the University of California, Berkeley, and MIT researchers argue that major cities like San Francisco could return to as much as 70 percent of normal mobility. Whereas other regions may see mobility restricted to around the 40 percent mark.
One analysis goes as far as to suggest that only once you see zero cases can we stop the exponential increase rise of the virus, lockdowns mere slow the numbers. But to achieve zero cases requires total isolation, as China managed to largely achieve.
Tensions around re-opening the American economy have already pitted states against each other with a president determined to see unemployment reduced in an election year.
Worryingly for those hoping herd immunity may in time mean that there is light at the end of the tunnel, researchers at Columbia University in the US have suggested in a preliminary paper that this may not be the case.
In a study spanning two years, it focused on four coronaviruses which circulate each year but garnered little attention due to the mild symptoms they elicit and found that re-infection from the same coronavirus was not uncommon, even in the same year.
The research doesn’t look at the current Covid-19 strain but the findings are a cautious reminder that the current pandemic, without a cure, could be with us for years to come.