Coronavirus lockdowns are sparking outrage, debate globally

SINGAPORE – Around the world, countries’ curbs on their people’s movement – aimed at stemming the spread of the deadly coronavirus – have triggered a deluge of emotions.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. The concept popularly used to analyse the five stages of grief appears to be playing out around the world in response to governments’ varying degrees of lockdown as citizens adjust to a sudden loss in freedoms amid the pandemic. In some countries, control measures have even ignited intense debates.

In the United States and Britain, people have directed their anger over sweeping workplace closures and movement restrictions at their leaders, saying their delayed response in countering an initial outbreak led to the need for such stringent steps now.

US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had at first downplayed the threat of disease, squandering precious time that could have slowed its spread and limited the number of fatalities.

Mr Trump, who as late as mid-March was still assuring the public that the US had the situation under control, has since ramped up his response, finally admitting in a March 16 tweet that “we have a problem that a month ago nobody ever thought about”. The country had the world’s most number of Covid-19 cases, at nearly 470,000, on Friday (April 10). More than 16,000 people have died.

Mr Trump’s administration has been lambasted for its lack of preparedness in ensuring hospitals had enough resources to deal with the flood of patients and that sufficient testing kits were available.

Stringent criteria to decide who got tested was criticised for letting scores of infections slip through the cracks. In many states, a person had to have travelled recently or have known ties to an existing case to qualify for tests, even if they exhibited all the symptoms.

In Britain, Mr Johnson’s initial strategy of letting the population develop “herd immunity” through a lack of controls created controversy and consternation. His U-turn days later after doctors convinced him of the severity of the situation then brought chaos and confusion.

Forbes magazine on Tuesday (April 7) described the British government’s policy on the virus as “dither, delay, spring into action late”. Britain is among the top 10 worst-hit countries, with more than 65,000 infections and nearly 8,000 deaths. Mr Johnson himself is in hospital after contracting the disease.

In India – which has been under a nationwide lockdown since March 25 – the debate is about whether the curbs have been too severe and put in place too early for a country of 1.3 billion people reporting less than 7,000 coronavirus cases to date.

The economic cost of the shutdown has been pegged at US$120 billion (S$170 billion), some 4 per cent of its gross domestic product, according to Indian daily The Economic Times. It should be noted, however, that country’s coronavirus testing rates are among the lowest in the world and most of its people do not have access to quality healthcare.

India’s enforcement of the lockdown has also been slammed – with the spread of viral videos purportedly showing officials abusing people caught flouting the rules. The police are investigating a video showing officers dousing migrant workers with a “chemical solution” to disinfect them, the BBC reported.

Elsewhere, overzealous enforcement officers in Australia and Britain have sparked public anger for threatening people sitting alone with six months in jail, and for using a drone to film and shame a couple walking on a secluded path, the New York Times reported.

In Japan, which on Tuesday declared a month-long state of emergency covering seven prefectures, the central government has been at odds with its municipal counterparts over the finer details of the partial lockdown, such as which essential services to maintain and which businesses to order shut.

With Japan already teetering on the brink of recession, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decisions encompass a need to mitigate the economic fallout.

“Japan has been screwing up,” Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, told The New York Times, adding that its number of confirmed cases – more than 5,500 – were “just the tip of the iceberg”.

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