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Countries Worldwide Try To Figure Out When To Lift COVD-19 Restrictions


This is arguably one of the most important questions in the world right now. When and how should we lift social distancing and lockdown orders? Lots of countries are trying to figure that out. Italy will start easing restrictions today. For eight weeks, it was almost totally shut down. Now, three of NPR's foreign correspondents are here to give us a sense of what's going on on their beats. Lauren Frayer covers India. Eyder Peralta is based in Kenya. And Frank Langfitt is in London. Good morning, guys.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.


KING: Frank, I want to start with you because Britain is still in lockdown. And interestingly, there's no date yet on when it will start to open up. So are people getting restless?

LANGFITT: Not so much people, but I would say businesses are. The business sector is very worried, frustrated. The economy has been suspended in animation since, probably, mid-March. It's considered, probably, to be heading into the worst recession the country's seen in a century. The political side is interesting. The Cabinet is split. Not surprisingly, Noel, the treasury secretary wants to begin a phase opening as soon as they can get to it. Matt Hancock, he's the health secretary. He is much more cautious. Now, the reason is the high death toll here. You know, you were just mentioning Italy.

In the United Kingdom now, more than 28,000 people have died from COVID-19. That's closing in on Italy numbers. It's quite possible that the U.K. will pass Italy and be the second most fatal country behind the United States. Now, people are very cautious about opening up. We saw just over the weekend most actually consider the idea of opening up anytime in the next week, they're against it because they're really afraid of a second spike.

KING: That seems to be something that we're seeing worldwide. Lauren, in India, there's a curious situation, which is that the government is extending a lockdown that was supposed to end this weekend even though the death toll there has been relatively low. Is this about fear, too?

FRAYER: Well, it's been relatively low. But it is climbing. Yesterday, actually, India broke its own record for new COVID-19 cases in a single day. India has about 1,400 deaths in a country of more than 1.3 billion people. So it's not nearly been as deadly as the U.S. or Europe. But the government just doesn't want to take any chances. And so lockdown has been extended for another two weeks. That means schools closed, airports closed, restaurants closed - gyms, places of worship, all closed. Face masks are now mandatory in public. There is, though, a recognition that different places have different circumstances within the giant subcontinent.

And so India has been divided into color-coded areas - red, orange and green. Red zones are Mumbai, where I live, and other big cities that have the highest concentrations of COVID-19 cases. And red zone means pretty much total lockdown, not even a taxi allowed to circulate on the street. Orange and green zones with fewer cases, you're seeing some movement. Local buses are returning but at 50% capacity. Now, through all of this, the government - the Indian government is trying to rally a feeling of unity and patriotism. Yesterday, we saw Indian air force jets doing these flyovers of several cities, showering flower petals on hospitals. Another gesture today, liquor stores have reopened for the first time in nearly six weeks. And there are lines forming right now.

KING: Interesting. We had a flyover in D.C. this weekend. You see these similarities. Eyder Peralta, you're in Nairobi, which is one of those big, bustling busy cities. What's the situation like there and in Kenya broadly?

PERALTA: So, you know, the lockdown has not been taken away entirely. But, you know, things are starting to look normal here. The government is even allowing people to start eating at restaurants. And we're seeing these types of relaxations across the continent. South Africa is allowing people to walk their dogs and exercise outside. Nigeria's allowing shops to open until mid-afternoon. But this is definitely a push and pull. Over the weekend, Dr. Mercy Mwangangi, a health minister here in Kenya, warned that people were getting too relaxed, forgetting to social distance. Let's listen.

MERCY MWANGANGI: Defeating coronavirus is not a sprint. This is not an issue that we will be able to dispense with in the short-term. And therefore, we must always be ready and prepared to enforce our containment measures and to learn to live in a new normal.

PERALTA: So like Lauren said in India - across Africa, we've also had relatively few diagnosed infections and less than 2,000 deaths. So I think, naturally, people are thinking that we've been spared. But what Dr. Mwangangi is saying is that Kenya is not out of the woods and that they will not hesitate to shut things down again.

KING: Frank, those relatively low death tolls that Lauren and Eyder were talking about make me wonder something. You know, the British government was criticized for moving too slowly in the beginning. Does that explain why Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reluctant to end the lockdown now?

LANGFITT: I think that's part of it. But also, it could be his own personal experience. He was just in the Sun newspaper on Sunday saying that he had been very close to being intubated when he was in the intensive care unit here in London, and that the government was preparing for what he called a death-of-Stalin type scenario. So he says he doesn't want people to suffer the way he did. And I think he is concerned that any sort of second spike would politically and economically be devastating.

I think what you're going to see here, when they get around to it, is what they call an iterative process, where they'll watch what's happening in places like Italy and Germany and try, bit by bit, to open things up. I was talking to a woman named Gemma Tetlow. She's the chief economist at the Institute for Government. It's a London think tank. This is how she put it.

GEMMA TETLOW: In a sense, the U.K. government is in a privileged position by moving after some other countries have already started to release some of these restrictions. So we can look to the experience of other countries about what has worked and what hasn't worked.

KING: Lauren, it strikes me that India has to be doing the math on economics - right? - because it's a country with a lot of very, very poor people. And I would imagine that a lockdown is really hurting them.

FRAYER: Absolutely. I mean, India's economy has been growing steadily for decades. Hundreds of millions of Indians have been gradually lifted out of poverty. That progress risks coming to a screeching halt with this lockdown. We've had tens of millions of migrant workers that have been stranded at workplaces that closed six weeks ago. There have been cases of them starving to death on the side of the road. The government has organized shelters, and in recent days, a few trains to transport some of those migrant workers back to their villages. But the tickets have been costly. There's been a controversy over that.

You know, one thing that's interesting - despite this heartbreaking situation for India's poor, it's interesting to note that India's overall mortality actually appears to have dropped during the coronavirus crisis. Despite COVID-19, under lockdown, so many car accidents and other fatalities are not happening. I mean, I've interviewed ambulance drivers and funeral directors who say their business is down.

KING: Eyder, I want to keep on that theme of good news. One of the good things we've seen from the African continent is that many African countries haven't had very high death tolls. Do you think that affects how their governments are thinking about what to do?

PERALTA: You know, I think with few exceptions, governments here on the African continent have taken a realistic view of the virus. They know that their early and aggressive work has really flattened curves. But they also know that a poor population cannot afford to stay locked down forever. So they're making - these decisions that they're making are not easy because there's a very palpable fear that by easing lockdowns, African countries, you know, could be inviting the kind of devastating death tolls that Europe and the U.S. have experienced.

KING: Eyder Peralta in Nairobi, our India correspondent Lauren Frayer and Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks, you guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.