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June 18, 2020

EUROPE: Political risks to managing second waves

BY Wolfango Piccoli, Antonio Barroso, Carsten Nickel, Luis Cornago

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( 6 mins)
  • Countries that have loosened restrictions for more than two weeks have not seen a dramatic increase in cases, but localized outbreaks are becoming more and more common.
  • The broad public support for lockdowns might not exist anymore in a possible second wave, which might lead governments to delay restrictive measures.
  • The need for increasingly decentralized approaches and the flaws of test, trace, and track strategies might complicate governments’ responses in a second-wave scenario.

Countries ahead on the pandemic curve, such as China and South Korea, have had to reimpose local lockdowns, particularly in big cities. These measures were taken as soon as outbreaks – with just 50 confirmed cases – were identified. In Germany, ongoing problems with outbreaks in the meat industry have led to similar local lockdowns. At the same time, although the UK still reports around 1,200 cases every day, the government there has been more reluctant to reactivate large-scale containment measures, as it seems to lack the capabilities to keep lockdowns local.

This demonstrates that in some countries, a potential return to the all-encompassing lockdowns imposed in March might not be politically (and economically) viable. At the same time, however, the degree of stringency required to contain a potential second wave remains unclear. It is between these constraints that the politics of managing potential second waves will play out.

Not rallying around the flag forever

During the first phase of the pandemic, many European governments benefited from a “rally around the flag” effect – the increased popularity of incumbents during moments of crisis. In the consensual democracies of northwest Europe, governments’ strategies still enjoy the support of a majority of citizens today. However, the opposite is true in Spain, France, and Poland, where polarization and fractious politics were already present before the pandemic, and the crisis has just reinforced these trends.

EUROPE: Political risks to managing second waves 1

The case of the UK exemplifies the temporary nature of the rally around the flag effect. Support for the government’s handling of the crisis has fallen by more than 30 points since the introduction of lockdown measures in late March. Similarly, in Sweden, where the number of deaths continues to be higher than in other Nordic countries, citizens seem increasingly dissatisfied with the government’s hands-off approach.

The consensus might start to fade away in more countries. One possibility is that the looming politicization of economic responses to the crisis affects perceptions about a government’s overall handling of the pandemic. A second possibility is that the emergence of a major second outbreak undermines the political consensus that is, for now, still prevailing in some countries.

Regions taking the lead

In the early stages of the outbreak, many European countries opted for some form of centralizing decision-making powers. However, as countries exit their lockdowns, most governments have moved beyond the “one-size-fits-all” approach, including Italy and Spain.

A decentralized approach is not necessarily problematic. The German case proves that decentralized systems of governance can succeed. Moreover, the experience of some Asian countries suggests that local or city-wide lockdowns might become increasingly common. However, the necessary conditions for such decentralized systems to thrive might not be present in every country.

Among the required preconditions are high levels of trust between regional/local authorities and the central government, which is crucial for coordination. In addition, in most countries, the degree of institutional capacity and government effectiveness varies substantially across regions. As a result, repeated inaccuracies with infection and mortality statistics might be concentrated in specific regions, less developed areas might be less able to introduce contact tracing quickly and effectively, and local authorities may struggle – whether for bureaucratic or political reasons – to engineer quick lockdowns in case of an outbreak. All this could reduce a country’s overall ability to respond.

Testing, tracing and beyond

The number of confirmed cases has decreased significantly in all countries. Some, such as Sweden or the UK, however, have more confirmed cases per million people than others (see graph below). One possibility is that some countries might identify more confirmed cases because they are testing more.

EUROPE: Political risks to managing second waves 2

In the absence of a vaccine, however, massive testing will not be enough. The question is whether and how the resulting data will be utilized. Contact tracing is, therefore, crucial. Germany, France, and Italy have now launched their contact tracing apps. In France, where the app was rolled out on 2 June, only around 1.7mn users have downloaded it since, while Germany has allegedly registered 7mn downloads within the first 24 hours. The UK and Spain are still testing their respective apps, and there is no date for their release yet.

Moreover, privacy concerns have risen in most countries – in Norway, the contact tracing app has been temporarily banned. Apps will also only be effective with a manual contact tracing system to follow up on positive cases. However, this is still under construction in many countries. In other places, human contact tracing seems to have been efficient enough for the app to appear more like an addition, rather than a step-change. These different settings will have to be taken into account when trying to gauge the likely effects of national app launches.

Given that most governments have reopened their borders ahead of the summer holiday season, another key risk will now be the import of cases from other countries. Therefore, the interoperability of contract-tracing apps and the coordination between national health authorities – which were very limited at the beginning of the pandemic – will be crucial. Bi-lateral agreements between tourist-exporting and tourism-dependent countries to avoid the mandatory quarantine exemplify the increasingly political nature of these efforts. They also serve as a reminder that some governments are in dire economic need of reopening. The need to focus on the economic recovery amid scarce financial resources, in turn, could divert attention from strengthening health services ahead of a potential second wave.

Ultimately, the risks at this stage are not only epidemiological but also political. This time around the (re)introduction of containment measures might well be more contested politically – not only by opposition parties but also among citizens.

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