The ‘Terrible Moral Choice’ of Reopening

European leaders have set out plans for restarting their societies. But the choice isn’t theirs; it belongs to individual citizens.

An army patrol walks along the River Seine in Paris, France.
Andrea Mantovani / The New York Times

Ever since Emmanuel Macron declared France “at war” with the coronavirus, the entire country has been under home confinement, with residents allowed outside only for urgent needs. So when the government announced a gradual reopening of some businesses and schools starting in May, a deep confusion set in.

Le Monde, the country’s leading daily newspaper, captured some of the anxieties in a live blog taking a flood of reader questions. My neighbors invited people for a barbecue and they’re totally disregarding the confinement measures; what should I do? one asked. If I don’t want to send my children back to school, will I face sanctions? another said. (The answer to the second question is no—a major development in a country where schools are a pillar of the republic and essential to reopening the economy.)

Ever since they imposed lockdowns weeks ago, governments across Europe have taken away individual liberties and kept citizens in their homes to save lives. Now a subtle shift is happening, in which confinement orders are giving way to a reopening that ultimately places more responsibility on individuals. Governments will still communicate public-health directives and decide how and when to reopen businesses and schools, but millions of people will have to make millions of small and large decisions about how to go about their daily life—balancing their own risk tolerance, mental health, and need for income.

Negotiating between lives and livelihoods is not only a political and economic issue; it’s a philosophical one, with consequences that will resonate for years to come. “It’s really a terrible moral choice,” Boris Cyrulnik, a French psychologist and neurologist, told me. “Freedom will lead to death, while constriction and denying people their freedom will stave off death but will bring economic ruin.”

Cyrulnik, who survived the Second World War as an enfant caché—one of thousands of Jewish children sent away by their families to be hidden with foster parents—is an expert in the field of psychological resilience. He views the coronavirus pandemic in a broad context. Pandemics have been with us since the Neolithic period, he said, but the coronavirus interrupts an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in the West since World War II.

How will we navigate this moment, when we will have to have confidence in ourselves, our governments, and our fellow citizens as we begin to emerge from our homes? Already, levels of trust in leadership vary across Europe and certainly across the United States. Compounding that, we’re reaching the stage in the crisis when our impending freedom can produce even greater anxiety, because the impetus will now be on us as individuals, not just the state, to do the right thing.

Some people—and sometimes I place myself in this category—are grappling with a kind of Stockholm syndrome, in which we’ve grown accustomed to the safe confines of home. But there’s a more vexing element to this new freedom too. For those who have been holed up at home for so long that they’re wary of venturing outside, strangers become threats. How can we trust that others are staying home if they’re sick? How can we know for sure that the person next to us on public transportation isn’t going to infect us? How can we be certain that local businesses are disinfecting surfaces often enough? How can large offices practice social distancing?

In Paris, where I live, some friends tell me they are going crazy working and homeschooling, and are eager to send their children back to school. Others are wary and would rather keep their kids at home. Some I’ve spoken with believe they shouldn’t in good conscience get on a plane this summer; others are eager to jet off to the Mediterranean for summer holidays they planned before the world changed. Coming to terms with the new normal is hard. Our actions will reshape relationships, as we’ll no doubt be more inclined toward quick judgments if we think our friends and relations are acting out of self-interest rather than the greater good. We’re all living in a science experiment—and a political and social-science experiment as well.

Much of Europe is ahead of the United States on the infection curve and offers lessons from the near future. (The state of Georgia is something of an exception, ahead of the rest of the country in reopening some businesses.) Some areas of Europe have been affected more than others, and the bloc is not at all unified in its response to the pandemic. In France, where more than 23,000 people have died of COVID-19, businesses and schools (but not universities) will begin reopening on May 11—if the infection rate stays low enough—but class sizes will be limited, social distancing will be required, and so will wearing masks on transport and in school. Only later will the government decide when cafés and restaurants might reopen.

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).

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.

Europe, a patchwork of countries with different time frames for reopening, is facing some of the same challenges as the United States. The European Union, though not a federal entity, has 27 member states whose citizens can, in theory, move freely across borders from one country to another. What one government decides will have implications for its neighbors—as with states in the U.S.—just as each of our individual decisions will affect our communities. European leaders can attempt to issue edicts from on high, but decisions will be made by politicians, and individuals, at the national and local levels. (The EU, for its part, has issued a road map to member countries, but it has no power to set policy across the bloc.)

Cyrulnik said that even if we regain the ability to make important decisions in our daily lives, the pandemic is a reminder of the limits of our liberty. “We have degrees of freedom, which are very important, but I think that we are much more constrained by our environments than we believe,” he said. For the foreseeable future, we will have to make “lots of little decisions—to go to school or not, to go on a trip or not.” Our choices will affect infection rates and government policies. How we navigate between trust and fear will reshape us not only as citizens, but as friends, families, and neighbors.