Skip to content

Illustration by Security Management

Leaders Face Increasing Pressure to Reopen Segments of the Economy

Despite a significant lack of testing availability in the United States, shortages of personal protective equipment, and the continued spread of the coronavirus around the globe, countries, states, and municipalities are facing increased pressure to take steps to reopen segments of their economies.

Thousands of Americans gathered in protest on Thursday, 16 April, demanding that U.S. state governors rescind stay home orders and reopen nonessential businesses. One of the most visible protests was in Michigan where demonstrators drove thousands of vehicles to the state Capitol.

“The demonstration was dubbed ‘Operation Gridlock’ because organizers said they wanted to gain attention by tying up traffic,” USA TODAY reports. “With the thousands of vehicles, traffic was backed up for more than a mile around the Capitol in several directions, according to Lieutenant Darren Green of the Michigan State Police.”

The protests come as more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected that the worst recession since the Great Depression will likely occur if the coronavirus pandemic is not contained.

In Asia specifically, where China’s economy has increasingly grown, the IMF projected that for the first time in 60 years Asia will not register any economic growth because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“While there is huge uncertainty about 2020 growth prospects, and even more so about the 2021 outlook, the impact of the coronavirus on the region will—across the board—be severe and unprecedented,” wrote Chang Yong Rhee, director of the Asia and Pacific Department at the IMF, in a blog post.

The lack of economic growth in Asia is being shaped by two factors: the global slowdown of the economy, expected to contract by 3 percent in 2020; and China’s slowdown, where growth is projected to decline from 6.1 percent in 2019 to 1.2 percent in 2020.

“If containment measures work, and with substantial policy stimulus to reduce ‘scarring,’ growth in Asia is expected to rebound strongly—more so than during the Global Financial Crisis,” Rhee explained. “But there is no room for complacency. The region is experiencing different stages of the pandemic. China’s economy is beginning to get back to work, other economies are imposing tighter lockdowns, and some are experiencing a second wave of virus infections. Much depends on the spread of the virus and on how policies respond.”

The European Union is juggling this dynamic, releasing a roadmap earlier this week on how member states can look to reopen portions of their economies.

“The roadmap guidance suggests that countries should make sure there has been a significant decrease in coronavirus cases for a sustained period before relaxing restrictions,” according to Security Management’s analysis. “Countries should also ensure that they have enough health care system capacity, and widespread testing capacity, before easing containment measures.”

The United Kingdom also announced that it would continue its nationwide lockdown for another three weeks to bring the total number of COVID-19 cases in the nation down.

In an interview with the BBC, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said “we still don’t have the infection rate down as far as we need to,” adding that relaxing measures would risk harming both the economy and public health.

In contrast, some U.S. states are exploring options to reopen nonessential businesses and lift stay home orders on May 1.

“Public health experts are warning against premature decisions to force the economy into motion again, and fear that vast stretches of the country still lack crucial supplies and systems—like expanded testing capacity that governors have said they do not have—to counter the risks of reopening,” according to The New York Times.

And when those orders are lifted, businesses and organizations will still likely have to impose significant distancing and hygiene measures to protect employees who come back to work in office spaces.

“Upon entering the building, the doors may open automatically so you don’t have to touch the handles,” according to Recode. “Before you board your elevator, you might tell the elevator where you’d like to go, rather than pressing the many buttons within the elevator. When you reach your floor, you could walk into a room full of dividers and well-spaced desks instead of the crowded open floor plan you’re used to. In common areas like meeting rooms and kitchens, expect to see fewer chairs and posted documentation of the last time they were cleaned.”

Measures like this will be needed because even if the world manages to bring the number of COVID-19 cases down and contain the coronavirus in mid-2020, it will still lack a vaccine so smaller outbreaks are likely and large public gatherings might be discouraged even after stay home orders are lifted and people resume working in office spaces.

In an analysis for The Atlantic, Ed Yong spoke with several experts who said they were uncomfortable with the thought of people returning to crowded public spaces—suggesting that gatherings should be limited to 50 people or fewer until a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 exist.

“That will be especially challenging in large cities: An average Manhattan street or subway car is the equivalent of a mass gathering,” Yong wrote. “Elsewhere, concerts, conferences, summer camps, political rallies, large weddings, and major sporting events may all have to be suspended for at least this year.”

The world will also need to embrace a mindset of resilience; instead of focusing on returning to pre-coronavirus normal, looking at how the world continues forward.

Stephen Kissler, an infectious-disease modeler at Harvard, said we need “to normalize COVID in the public psyche, and reinforce that this will be a part of our day-to-day lives. “Many people I’ve spoken with are aghast at the thought. We thirst for a swift and decisive ‘victory.’ But I’m reminded of images from World War II as people in London walked to work, briefcases in hand, against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings. I think we are in store for a similar period in history, as we learn to make greater peace with the world’s chaos and our own mortality.”

For more COVID-19 coverage, see ASIS International’s Disease Outbreak: Security Resources page.