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The health risks that remain as countries take tentative steps to reopen

Across the globe, lockdowns imposed to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 are being lifted, businesses are reopening and people are returning to work. But even in countries that had successfully controlled their coronavirus outbreaks, like South Korea and Singapore, there are warnings of how quickly the virus can reassert itself when restrictions loosen and activity resumes. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    From Moscow to Milan, and Singapore to Seoul, the watchword these last weeks and months has been lockdown.

    Now many of these places are beginning to loosen COVID-19 restrictions.

    But, as Nick Schifrin reports, in this global pandemic, the first steps are made cautiously, and with no guarantee that there won't be steps back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After seven weeks of Spanish quarantine, the beach bums are back. Spain's small businesses also reopened. And following one of the world's strictest lockdowns, a cafe con leche tastes like heaven.

  • Olivia Ortiz (through translator):

    It tastes so good. It tastes like the glory of my life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the first time in almost two months, Parisians left the house without government permission. Shoppers filled the Champs Elysees with their boutiques of choice written on mandatory masks.

  • Victoria Boyard (through translator):

    Wearing pajamas all day long doesn't help. I want to go shopping again. It is good for our morale.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Switzerland, beef is back on the menu, as diners are allowed to return to restaurants.

    Elementary school students are back in the Netherlands, sitting behind plastic shields. And in Russia, despite a new surge of cases, President Vladimir Putin is also looking to reopen.

  • President Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    Starting from May 12, wherever possible, it is necessary to create conditions for the restoration of work of enterprises in the basic sectors of the economy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But there's a rip current under this wave of reopenings. In Seoul, nightclubs have new posters banning gatherings and bars that were open on Friday night now have padlocks.

    A single 29-year-old visited this neighborhood last week to go clubbing, and infected more than 50 people. The only reason the club-goer had been allowed out, South Korea relaxed social distancing 10 days ago.

  • President Moon Jae-In (through translator):

    It will be a long time before the COVID-19 outbreak ends completely. We should also brace for the pandemic's second wave, which many experts are predicting.

  • Rebecca Katz:

    This is a virus that has a foothold in human populations and is not going anywhere.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Rebecca Katz directs Georgetown's Center for Global Health Science and Security.

  • Rebecca Katz:

    I'm not even sure that we have finished the first wave, and already individuals and decision-makers are trying to move on as if we are over the hump or we're past this problem. But, in fact, the curves are telling us we are still in the midst of it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For months, Singapore used widespread testing and meticulous contact tracing to prevent an outbreak.

    But positive cases have jumped a hundred-fold because authorities admit they failed to consider these tower blocks. They're full of foreign workers who can't social-distance. The spike among those foreign workers exposes the danger of overlooking vulnerable populations.

  • Rebecca Katz:

    Often, you're putting people in situations that are kind of perfect for disease transmission. And then that transmission passes over to the rest of the population.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Northeast China, state TV showed police setting up new checkpoints, after warning of a new wave and reclassifying a province as high-risk.

    In Wuhan, where COVID-19 began to spread, authorities reported a handful of cases, the first in more than a month.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    We are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In London yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled the United Kingdom's first plan to get workers back on the job.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    Anyone who can't work from home, for instance, those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, this morning, commuters and the opposition party called the guidance confusing.

    And Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, rejected the plan, out of fear of a second wave.

  • First Minister Nicola Sturgeon:

    My judgment right now is that the risk is still too great. Too many people are still dying.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Countries should lift lockdowns only when they can identify new outbreaks, World Health Organization's emergencies director Mike Ryan said today.

  • Michael Ryan:

    If disease persists in countries at a low level without, the capacity to investigate clusters, identify clusters, then there is always the risk that the disease will take off again.

  • Rebecca Katz:

    It's going to require a lot of testing, tracing, isolation, quarantine, treatment when we possibly can, good, strong case management.

    These — this is resource-intensive. It requires a really robust public health system, which, to be honest, doesn't really exist in those parts of the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Which is why experts say, this isn't the second wave; it's the second inning, and there is a long, treacherous path home.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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