July 4 is being hailed as its own sort of British Independence Day – a “Super Saturday” when many of the UK’s remaining coronavirus lockdown restrictions are being lifted or relaxed. The end of the country’s “long national hibernation,” Boris Johnson said last week, will be marked by the reopening of pubs, restaurants, hair salons, hotels, museums, theatres and other venues. Social distancing measures are being softened, and individuals will be allowed to spend time in the company of more people.
“Frankly I can’t wait to go to a pub or a restaurant,” Johnson said at a news conference last week. “I think people need to go out, and I think they need to enjoy themselves, and rediscover things that they haven’t been able to do for a long time.”
Even as Johnson and other world leaders declare victory, however, the virus has delivered a series of unsettling reality checks. There have been worrying outbreaks recently in Germany, South Korea, Italy, China and New Zealand. In the United States, the number of coronavirus cases has been surging in many states. On Monday evening, the UK government introduced its first local lockdown, isolating 330,000 people in Leicester from the rest of the country after the number of cases there spiked.
“We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives. But the hard reality is this is not even close to being over,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organisation, said on Monday.
“Although many countries have made some progress, globally the pandemic is actually speeding up,” he said.
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It’s tempting to blame irresponsible individuals for the spiking infection rates. Since the beginning of the pandemic and the ensuing national lockdowns, social media has been filled with posts shaming people for congregating in parks and other public spaces, milling about in front of bars and restaurants without regard for social distancing, or failing to wear face masks.
Certainly, after so much time spent in confinement, the warm summer weather has brought with it a sense of release. In the UK, thousands descended on the beaches of Bournemouth last week, on the hottest day thus far of the year, forcing officials to declare a “major incident.”
The easing of lockdown restrictions, combined with rising summer temperatures that lure more people outside, creates a “perfect storm” that can easily overwhelm popular tourist destinations and contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, UK officials say – a situation that played out in the United States when young people attended spring break festivities in Florida and Mexico despite growing public health warnings.
Now, as countries in Europe reopen their borders to tourism, foreign visitors may spark a rise in infections. In Greece, for example, more than one-third of new coronavirus cases over the past week have been from foreign tourists. In Spain, Fernando Simón, director of the Center for Coordination of Alerts and Emergencies, warned this week that cases were likely to rise in the country as travellers are encouraged to return to the country to help its economic recovery.
Many of the recent outbreaks have nothing to do with tourists enjoying their holiday or young people partying the night away in some field or former warehouse, however.
In Germany, two cities in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia were placed on lockdown last week after more than 1,500 workers at a meat processing plant tested positive for Covid-19, raising fears of a second wave of coronavirus infections.
Meat processing plants have been notorious centres of coronavirus infection in many countries, including the United States. Employees – many of whom are low-paid immigrants who are housed in tight living quarters – typically work shoulder to shoulder, and ventilation systems designed to maintain cold temperatures within the factories create ideal conditions for the virus to spread.
The coronavirus has hit minority and low-income communities particularly hard. In Berlin, more than 300 households were placed under quarantine in the Neukölln neighbourhood after an outbreak in an apartment complex that is home to many low-income and immigrant families.
“The people being affected right now are those who can’t even afford an apartment that’s big enough for their family,” Neukölln’s district mayor Martin Hikel told Deutsche Welle.
In Italy as well, the government has deployed soldiers to help quarantine a residential complex in the town of Mondragone, near Naples, that is home to a community of Bulgarian farm workers, after 49 people tested positive for Covid-19.
And Bartolini, one of Italy’s major delivery companies, was recently forced to close its warehouse in Bologna after dozens of employees contracted coronavirus.
“Logistics setting remains highly risky in terms of new outbreaks: These places present a high volume of people interchange and easy crowding,” Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at the University of Milan, told HuffPost Italy.
The situation in Mondragone is similar to that in North Rhine-Westphalia, he said. “The professional risk there was grafted onto a potentially explosive social element, specifically the housing conditions of exploited workers, forced to rest in dormitories with dozens of people. Such a context makes social distancing impossible.”
“We should take into account that there are sectors of the population that do not have all the tools to fully understand and to access adequate information on what needs to be done,” he added.
In Leicester, there have been news reports of crowds outside of restaurants as well as an outbreak at a local food production plant, but public officials have said that multiple factors are likely to have contributed to the spike in cases.
“I don’t think at the moment we’re seeing a single cause or single smoking gun on this,” Ivan Browne, the city’s public health director, told the BBC, “so we really need to try to dig down and find out what is going on, and it’s likely to be a combination of factors.”
Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, health secretary Matt Hancock suggested that poverty and higher-density housing may have contributed to the outbreak.
Presenter Dan Walker also mentioned the fact that Leicester is more ethnically diverse than other areas, with some people in the community perhaps facing language barriers in accessing public health information.
“We are still doing the work to understand exactly why the outbreak has been so bad in Leicester,” Hancock said. “But lots of the reasons that you mentioned just then are familiar to me, and people will find them intuitive.”
Overall, despite the hand-wringing on social media about people not following government guidelines, scientific evidence suggests that most people have been adhering to the restrictions.
“All the government evidence shows widespread adherence to the public health measures,” John Drury, a professor at the University of Sussex and one of the country’s leading behavioural psychologists, told The Guardian recently.
Most examples of people failing to follow social distancing measures are not evidence of individual selfishness, he said, but rather of the hardships that many face and the failure of public officials to offer clear guidance or provide for their needs.
“Despite media campaigns to vilify some people as selfish and thoughtless ‘covidiots,’ the evidence on reasons for non‐adherence shows that much of it was practical rather than psychological,” Drury and his colleagues wrote in a recent paper in the British Journal of Social Psychology. “Many people had to cram into Tube trains to go to work because they needed money to survive and government support schemes were insufficient. People were told they could go out to exercise, but those in urban areas had limited public space. And some employers failed to provide the support for social distancing and hygiene. Those with less income and wealth also live in more crowded homes.”
Now, with Boris Johnson encouraging people to eat, drink, and be merry – and the decision to relax restrictions further on a Saturday seems designed to facilitate just that – it’s no wonder that the public seems to be adopting a looser stance toward the coronavirus.
But it remains the government’s responsibility to make sure that the lifting of lockdown restrictions doesn’t result in a second wave of infections. Many health officials have looked on with dismay as the UK and the US press ahead with reopening plans despite the lack of robust testing and tracing systems that would allow them to identify and isolate new outbreaks quickly, before they spread throughout the community.
“Test, Trace, Isolate and Quarantine,” remained the central message from the World Health Organization, Tedros said on Monday.
“With 10 million cases now and half a million deaths, unless we address the problems we’ve already identified at WHO, the lack of national unity and lack of global solidarity and the divided world which is actually helping the virus to spread ... the worst is yet to come,” he said.
“I’m sorry to say that, but with this kind of environment and conditions we fear the worst,” he said.
With reporting from HuffPost U.K., HuffPost Italy, and HuffPost Spain.