Across Europe and much of the United States, the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions has provided a sense that the immediate health crisis has passed.
France has won its “first victory” against the coronavirus, President Emmanuel Macron declared on Sunday, and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that the country had “turned the tide.”
In New York, throngs of people congregated outside bars over the weekend, enjoying drinks, sunshine and the company of friends.
Even as people begin to celebrate a return to normalcy, however, recent days have produced troubling reminders that the pandemic is not yet over, and that even if daily cases fall to zero, the virus can return at a moment’s notice.
In China, an outbreak of coronavirus infections linked to a major Beijing food market has sparked fears of a second wave of COVID-19. More than 100 cases have been identified over the past week, and the city has implemented harsh restrictions, closing schools and locking down residential neighborhoods in an attempt to contain the spread.
The two airports in Beijing have canceled more than 1,000 flights following the outbreak, and the city urged its 21 million residents to avoid nonessential travel outside the city.
Last week, New Zealand fully lifted its lockdown restrictions, save for border controls, after health officials declared the country to be virus-free — one of the first countries in the world to eliminate COVID-19 and return to pre-pandemic conditions.
The celebrations have proven to be short-lived, however.
On Tuesday, New Zealand announced that two women who flew from London to see a dying parent were released from quarantine early and subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus — a breach of the quarantine protocol that has forced health officials to track down hundreds of people the women may have come into contact with and test them for the virus.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern branded the incident an “unacceptable failure,” and the country’s military is now stepping in to oversee the quarantine process.
In the United States, Texas, Arizona and Florida all reported their highest daily increases in new coronavirus cases on Tuesday. All three states were quick to lift stay-at-home orders meant to stop the spread of infections.
The figures come amid ongoing efforts by President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders to downplay the ongoing spread of the virus. At least 21 states have seen rates of new cases increase over the last two weeks as a majority of the country reopens.
Vice President Mike Pence painted a rosy ― and misleading ― portrait of the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus in an op-ed published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, in which he praised all 50 states for beginning to reopen in a “safe and responsible manner.”
But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested that isn’t the case during an interview with NPR on Tuesday.
“There certainly were states that did not strictly follow the guidelines that we put out about opening America again,” Fauci said. “There were rather well-delineated gateway criteria followed by Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3.”
He added: “Clearly there were states that ― left to their own decision about that ― went ahead and opened to a varying degree … certainly before they got to the benchmarks that they needed to get.”
Other leading health officials around the world have similarly warned that coronavirus infections could spike quickly as lockdown restrictions are lifted and people become less vigilant.
“More than six months into the pandemic, this is not the time for any country to take its foot off the pedal,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters last week.
Indeed, as the number of coronavirus cases approaches 8 million, it’s clear that the pandemic is “far from over,” the WHO leader said.
“Oh my goodness. Where is it going to end? We’re still at the beginning of really understanding,” Fauci told a conference last week. In a span of just four months, the virus “has devastated the whole world,” he said. “And it isn’t over yet.”
Officials are particularly worried that lifting lockdown restrictions too quickly, before a robust testing and contact tracing system is in place, could be a recipe for disaster.
Hans Kluge, the WHO’s director for Europe, told The Guardian this week that the U.K. remained in a “very active phase of the pandemic,” and that restrictions should not be eased further until the country’s contact tracing system improves.
“Contact tracing is key especially as the U.K. starts to relax the social and physical distancing measures,” Kluge said. “There has to be a robust track-and-trace system in place of operation.”
The recent outbreaks should act as a warning to world leaders and the general public that, without a vaccine, life may never truly go back to normal, and the way forward will require everyone to follow a new path between total lockdown and complete freedom.
Fernando Simón, director of the Coordination Center for Health Alerts and Emergencies at Spain’s Ministry of Health, warned this week that coronavirus infections could spike rapidly if citizens let their guard down.
“If we relax more than we should, there could be a relatively rapid resurgence, which could be aggravated by the arrival of tourists,” Simón warned, according to HuffPost Spain.
“This could happen, we don’t know if it will happen or not. We cannot rule out that at any given moment there is excessive relaxation. It is a bit in everyone’s hands that this does not happen during the summer, but we cannot rule it out.”
With reporting from HuffPost U.K., HuffPost France and HuffPost Spain.