European Perspectives: COVID-19

Same challenge, different measures

, by Flavia-Gabriela Sandu, Madelaine Pitt, Marie Menke, Tarinda Bak, Věra Dvořáková

European Perspectives: COVID-19
Coronavirus is a very serious challenge to health services throughout Europe and the world. Unsplash / Daan Stevens / Unsplash License

COVID-19 is spreading in Europe. So far, EU member states have reacted to the epidemic in very different ways. Contributors from France, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Romania report on case numbers, government strategies and lockdowns.


Tarinda Bak on France: Action came too late

During the months of January and February, the government announced new hygiene policies and tried to reassure the French nation that the virus was not going to affect them. However, after observing the huge impact of this health crisis, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to take action.

First of all, in the evening of March 13, the president informed the population that schools, colleges and universities would be closed starting the following Monday. Second, he announced that the restaurants, cafe shops and bars will have to be closed by midnight from that Saturday. And third, he informed us that the nation must self-isolate at home for a minimum of two weeks. Whenever you want to leave the house, you now have to carry a document with you, where you state why leaving your house has been necessary for you. Police are on the street and make sure that people don’t leave their homes without good reason.

These strong measures now are a result of the absence of action from the government at the beginning of the crisis. In fact, this perfectly sums up the president’s health policy. As a consequence, France is by now highly affected by the Corona virus and many are sick and even hospitalised, with the death toll rising.

The government has now begun to use military hospitals and airplanes to handle the crisis. In comparison with other countries in Europe, France was not the last state to react, but also not the first. The measures taken may seem similar to those in Italy, but Italy reacted much sooner than France.


Vera Dvorakova on Denmark and the Czech Republic: EU versus China

In the Czech Republic, just under 1,000 people have been confirmed to be infected. One death has been registered and a few people have recovered. Denmark, where I live, has around 1,500 confirmed cases of infection and 13 deaths so far. Last week, both governments announced a state of emergency. Subsequently, all schools have been closed and students must study from home. Most industrial production has been paused and many small businesses have been closed. The state borders have been closed with only a few exceptions. In the Czech Republic, nobody is allowed outside, except for going to work or shopping. People must wear masks when going to public spaces such as shops or using public transport. In comparison to the Czech Republic, there are no rules about face masks or limits on leaving one’s home when not sick in Denmark. The Danish state has also released two bailout packages to ensure that the employees and small businesses who cannot work during this situation can still survive. This is in stark contrast to the Czech Republic, where small business owners whose businesses have closed still have to pay their social and health insurance.

In both countries, people were quite sceptical at first, calling the virus ‘just a worse type of flu’. After all the emergency measures were announced, panic buying started. In the Czech Republic, people are criticising the government and the prime minister, mostly claiming that the measures have been chaotic, disorganised and badly executed. Despite this criticism, people seem to be mostly following the rules.

Voices criticising the EU have also appeared. The EU is blamed for its inaction, although this emergency is not within its competences. It is usually perceived to have taken an opposition tack to China, which has promised to provide the Czech Republic with masks. Making homemade masks became quite popular recently. If one can make more than one needs, they are usually donated to friends or even hospitals, as there are not enough masks for everyone, and people are now forced to wear them outside.

The one thing that affected me was the closing of all schools. Instead, we have online classes and assignments, but it is still unclear how our exams are going to work. I couldn’t buy milk the first couple of days of people panic buying, but it has become much better. Hand sanitizer and face masks are still impossible to buy though and people are still in the streets. My social life has also been affected – I only talk to my friends online on Facebook or Discord, which is quite annoying but probably necessary. Hopefully, this will end soon.


Marie Menke from Germany: Who do we need to keep the system running?

Contrary to many neighbouring countries, Germany does not yet have a curfew. What it does have so far is a nationwide contact ban: gatherings of more than two people who do not live in a shared household are prohibited. Opinions on the ban vary: some are calling for tougher and faster intervention, and cheer Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder, who had already issued a 14-day curfew in his state on 21 March. According to this, citizens in Bavaria are only allowed to leave their homes for a “good reason”. Saarland and Saxony are now following - German federalism makes this possible.

Some play down the extent of the crisis: in several cities, public order offices took action against so-called “corona parties”, where especially young people use their newly won free time to party together. Others point out that it is not certain whether a curfew would actually help, or argue that because of Germany’s particular historical heritage a curfew should remain a last resort. At the same time, false reports are circulating on the Internet that describe the virus as a kind of “organised action by elites”. Hardly ever before has media disinformation been as deadly as it is now.

At 9pm you can hear people clapping on balconies in many streets to thank the many people in system-relevant professions such as nurses, supermarket employees and more. Corona has shown: many of the professions that are now called “systemically relevant” belong to those that are a) taken up by women more than average and b) often poorly paid and enjoy little social standing.

Meanwhile, Germany has said goodbye to the “black zero”, the plan not to incur any new debts: the government wants to borrow 150 billion euros, among other things to guarantee unlimited loans for companies and emergency aid for the self-employed. Because she was in contact with an infected doctor, Chancellor Angela Merkel is now also working from home.


Flavia Sandu on Romania: Anticipating the difficulties

Romania confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on the 26th of February, but the panic buying began days before that: a significant amount of the media outlets contributed to creating a wide-spread panic which led to panic buying across the country before the first case was even confirmed. Around mid-February, the Romanian government began adopting measures to stop the spread of Coronavirus such as cancelling flights from the affected regions, banning gatherings with over 1,000 people and quarantining people travelling from risk regions such as Italy.

One of the harshest methods of dealing with the situation came in the shape of an emergency decree which hardened the punishment for people who fail to respect quarantine. They could spend between six months and three years in jail or be fined. If someone confirmed positive doesn’t declare this to the authorities, they could face jail time of two to seven years. This could rise to up to 15 years if someone dies as a consequence.

On 14th March, Romania declared a state of emergency from 16th of March for 30 days, thus closing all educational institutions. As of March 22nd, there have been 433 confirmed cases, including 64 recoveries and two deaths according to the Group of Strategic Communication of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. However, the number of cases might increase soon, due to the fact that a significant number of Romanian diaspora in countries such as Spain and Italy are returning home.

Currently, Romania is not going into lockdown, but a military ordinance has been adopted, which forbids groups larger than 3 people on the streets, limits travel between 10pm and 6am and suspends commercial activities with the exception of food stores, pharmacies and cleaning services.

Madelaine Pitt on the United Kingdom: Mixed messages and no leadership

A spoof newspaper recently joked that Prime Minister Boris Johnson chooses his strategy for tackling coronavirus daily by rolling a dice every morning. Initially, the government said it was aiming for “herd immunity”, a barbaric strategy which relies upon enough people becoming infected, recovering and not being able to become ill again to tackle the spread of the virus. Even more horrifyingly, Boris Johnson went on a TV chat show to say that one strategy could be to “let it sweep through the population” and “take it in one hit”, and that we should “strike a balance” between this and “draconian measures” – such as closing schools. His chief adviser was revealed to have told him, “if pensioners die, so what”.

The government then belatedly began to advise against going bars, clubs, pubs, restaurants and theatres – yet without forcing their closure, meaning that people did not see any great issue with continuing to go there. Via daily press conferences, each more incoherent than the next, Boris Johnson told us “practise social distancing” but “go out and enjoy yourselves”. Unlike in other countries, there have been no public information campaigns, online or otherwise, to advise people how to act. Although schools and non-essential establishments have now shut, communication on the topic remained extremely vague and confusing, a testament to the rudderlessness of the government. Yesterday, a more serious video of Boris Johnson was shown on national TV, asking people to stay home except for grocery shopping and exercising alone once a day - a sharp contrast to his cheerful recklessness of the days before.

In a belated but positive shift, the Chancellor of the Exchequer first announced a £330 billion package of loans to help businesses, then a commitment to pay 80% of the salaries of employees who cannot telework. The teeming streets of London, in stark comparison to the emptiness of those of other European capitals, had proved that, where people cannot work from home and cannot afford not to go to work, they go to work. Although this budgetary gear-shift leaves many uncertainties for the self-employed, this unprecedented swelling of the state represents an essential step to helping Britain fight COVID-19.

The tragically slow reaction to the outbreak has meant that many hospitals lack proper equipment – and, after a decade of austerity, which has particularly impacted the National Health Service, I fear that the impact of COVID-19 in the UK will be particularly bad. The virus may expose Boris Johnson for his incompetence and cluelessness. But lives will be lost because of it.

With thanks to Marie Menke, Editor-in-Chief of Treffpunkt Europa, for organising this collaborative piece.

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