In Italy, where more than 26,000 people have died of COVID-19, and which went on total lockdown before France, some businesses will begin reopening on May 4 and people will be able to see their family members, but group gatherings will remain banned. Restaurants and hair salons aren’t expected to reopen until June, and then only with social-distancing measures in place. Schools won’t reopen until the fall—a decision intended to protect older people, many of whom live in close proximity to their grandchildren (though in a country where grandparents are more often than not the primary source of child care for working parents, this raises the question of who exactly will look after kids if parents have to go back to work).
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Elsewhere in Europe, Austria shut down quickly and has now allowed many businesses to resume, with plans to send students back to school next month with alternating classes. Denmark has already reopened its schools. Sweden never fully went on lockdown, resulting in less economic distress but a significantly higher death toll than those of its Scandinavian neighbors. In Germany, though schools remain closed, some businesses have been operating throughout the confinement period—putting intense pressure on their competitors in countries such as Italy where nonessential industry has been stopped for weeks.
Across the continent, people are unsure of what’s next. “Phase one was a lockdown. Everybody bought it. Now we’re opening up but no one really knows how and when,” says Jana Puglierin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who lives in Berlin. “What should be the priority? Kids going to school or day care? Or should it be shops opening?”
Governments did not impose lockdowns during the 1918 influenza pandemic, but that crisis still offers lessons. “When there’s a kind of external threat, people band together because they come to redefine the self, in a sense,” says Laura Spinney, the author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. “It’s still selfish behavior, but the self is defined as the group that’s victimized by the threat. The idea is, we’re all in this together.” But, she told me, “when the threat starts to recede, the collective self starts to fragment. That’s when you see what we might call bad behavior, more selfish behavior in the traditional sense, rather than in the new sense created by the pandemic.”
During the 1918 pandemic in the United States, people were compliant with health directives at first, but as time went on, “you saw the vaccines weren’t working, the doctors weren’t necessarily in control of the situation, trust kind of seeped away, and people’s compliance fell away,” Spinney said. Respecting measures that will prevent the spread of infection is “not a given by any means,” she said, “and governments have to work hard with their messaging and so on to keep it up.” Again, the shift here is one from government-mandated rules to a greater sense of individual responsibility.