It’s going to get tougher this weekend. “Stay at home! Keep it up,” the governments all over Europe are reiterating. Because if we continue to do this en masse, the corona measures may soon be relaxed slightly. The pressure for partly lifting them is increasing. Across Europe, experts are warning of educational disadvantages, social unrest, and major economic repercussions.
Is it time to tentatively open your front door again? Have the measures been effective or are we all a bit late to the game? Innovation Origins, with its staff members spread across Europe, has written a critical review of the current situation in several EU countries. Conclusion: God only knows – do whatever you think is best. ‘Because we have no idea yet how widespread the disease actually is,’ says René Gottschalk, head of the Public Health Service in Frankfurt, Germany.
This absence of information is also behind the cause of the current situation. For a long time, European countries did not want to recognize the threat. It was not until Italy, Spain and France pushed the virus northwards that governments woke up. This can be seen in the considerably lower infection rates in countries like Poland and Denmark. It didn’t take any lengthy discussions there to isolate the population and close the borders.
‘It would have been better if Europe had joined forces from the outset’, Antonio Zapatero
Individual European countries had thought for far too long that COVID-19 would grind to a halt at their borders. Even though everyone could literally calculate how fast the virus would spread. At that moment the EU should have taken over responsibility for coordinating the fight against corona. Now the situation is similar to that of the federal states in Germany. There is a great deal of criticism of the alternate policies of some of the states. Germans want one uniform policy, led by Berlin. A similar picture emerges what the editors at Innovation Origins have encountered in their own countries. We learned about each other’s measures as the crisis progressed. But it would have been better if we had tackled the fight against the virus on a European level. That is the lesson we can already learn from this crisis right now.
‘The public healthcare system in Poland has collapsed’, Ariel Szczotok
If the coronavirus had first surfaced in Poland last January, the country with its aging society, a multitude of widespread diseases and full churches every Sunday would have played out Italy’s drama,” says Ariel Szczotok, paramedic and president of the International Paramedic Association . As nurses and ambulance staff, the paramedics are on the frontline of public healthcare. Fortunately, the crisis did not erupt until March. The government reacted very quickly. On March 11th, when there were only 25 patients, it announced a lockdown and restrictions which were later tightened. Movements are restricted, at most two people are allowed to walk together, the maximum number of visitors to a church is five and most shops are closed. It’s working. The epidemic is slowing down. Currently, there are about 5500 patients, 174 fatalities and about 350 new cases each day. 153,000 people have been quarantined.
The situation at the moment is not as bad as was predicted by the government back in March. But there are two major casualties: the public healthcare system and the economy. The public healthcare system in Poland has collapsed. Clinics and numerous hospitals are closed, access to specialist doctors is very difficult. “The medical staff are being decimated not by the coronavirus, but by the sanitation regime. If someone has had direct contact with a person suffering from COVID-19, they are automatically placed in a fourteen-day quarantine. Consequently, one infected doctor means the closure of an entire hospital. That’s absurd,” Ariel Szczotok says.
It is estimated that several hundred thousand people – maybe even a million – have already lost their jobs. Several hundreds of thousands of small businesses have been forced to suspend their activities. “The disaster that has stricken certain sectors, e.g. restaurants or other services, is solely due to administrative bans. But these bans had to be put in place,” says Maciej Bukowski, the president of Wise Europe think tank.
“The problem is that in Poland the lockdown had to start earlier because the government was afraid that the public healthcare system would collapse. We will have to wait until the disease dies out by itself.” Now everyone is anticipating this weekend. If the Polish people maintain their discipline up to and including Easter, then there is a chance that the country can start to re-open at the beginning of May. If not, the lockdown will be extended. “Depending on the duration of the lockdown, the economy in Poland will shrink by 2 – 5 % and even up to 20 % if the lockdown is prolonged. Some sectors will not be able to survive that,” Bukowski says.
‘The Netherlands has turned a major corner’, Xander Kooman
According to health economist Xander Koolman, an important shift has taken place in The Netherlands in recent days. “The Dutch government was reluctant to implement innovations. Now they are going to look into how apps can slow down the spread of the virus,” he says. An app like this must give an indication of when someone has been in contact with a corona patient so that they can quarantine themselves early on and no longer infect others.
However, it is important to list the pros and cons clearly, for example, regarding privacy. A hasty decision is usually not good in these kinds of situations. Koolman: “A lockdown has dramatic implications for the economy. The economy can grind to a halt for a maximum of one month, after that it becomes more difficult for entrepreneurs, and companies start going bankrupt. The government set up support measures very quickly, which is very sensible from an economic viewpoint. Although of course, we can’t keep that up for too long. We’ve got to find a new strategy to combat the spread of the virus and to get the economy back on its feet. Digital innovation like an app can help with this.”
According to Koolman, this comes too late for certain sectors. “Sectors like aviation and hospitality can barely be saved. Keeping a 1.5-meter distance is virtually impossible to maintain in these sectors. Airplanes are then considerably less full, which makes traveling much more expensive. That will have dramatic consequences. It will take another 1.5 years before the economy is fully up and running again,” Koolman believes.
“We are still in the early stages of the crisis here in The Netherlands,” the health economist states. “A vaccine would put an end to the crisis in an instant, but there just isn’t one yet. It is important that European countries come together to formulate a vision on policy around the coronavirus. This is important in order to reopen the borders and prevent countries from deciding to close them again in the future. That would have enormous economic repercussions. If their objectives are aligned with each other, countries will be able to adjust their priorities accordingly. After all, every country works in its own way. That’s how you can learn from each other,” Koolman says.
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‘We should have prepared ourselves for the worst much more quickly here in Spain,’ Antonio Zapatero.
Antonio Zapatero has been the medical director of the largest hospital in Spain since March 21st. Over the past few weeks, approximately two thousand patients with COVID-19 have been admitted to the Ifema stock exchange building in Madrid. A thousand of them have already been declared cured and have been discharged. The coronavirus claimed more than 5500 lives in the Spanish capital. This is three times that number for the whole of Spain. Nevertheless, the mood in one of the world’s largest hotbeds is cautiously optimistic. After a lockdown of one month, a downward trend has finally been seen across all fronts.
Zapatero has been in the spotlight ever since he swapped his post as medical director of the prestigious university hospital in Fuenlabrada for this one in this emergency field hospital. “We are going to face some tough weeks,” the internist predicted a few weeks ago when he took office. And that prediction became reality. Spain paid a very high price for its initial underestimation of the gravity of the situation. As a result, medical care has been falling behind for several weeks already.
‘Prevent what you can prevent’
According to Zapatero, much suffering could have been avoided if a form of intervention had taken place sooner. He sees this mistake mainly as a lesson for countries and regions where the virus is not yet widespread.
“Only now that we are in the middle of the crisis ourselves, do we see how bad it is. My advice is to learn from the mistakes made in Italy and Spain. Don’t be indifferent if the problem is not that serious yet. All kinds of social events went on here too and weren’t shut down. We are now paying a high price for that. The virus sometimes behaves much more aggressively than we had anticipated. It leads to countless deaths, especially among the elderly. We should have prepared ourselves for the worst much more quickly here in Spain. Let this be a lesson to others. Set up emergency facilities. And prevent what you can prevent,” said the Spaniard in a brief telephone interview.
Zapatero supports the strict measures introduced by the Spanish government. As of March 14th, there has been a lockdown in the country which was further tightened on March 28th. Only people with jobs in ‘essential services’ are still allowed to be on the streets. Regular citizens are only allowed to go outside for essential errands (i.e. shopping or pharmacy), a visit to the doctor or for a walk around the block with their dog. “The sooner you isolate patients and the more people who stay inside, the sooner everything will be under control. That’s what we’re seeing now,” says Zapatero.
What could Spain have learned from other countries? Zapatero: “I think it would have been much better if Europe had joined forces from the outset. Unfortunately, it has been a case of every man for himself for quite a while now.”
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‘Back to normal step by step’, Minister Jens Spahn (Germany)
Back to everyday life step by step. This is how the German Minister of Health Jens Spahn envisions the way forward out of the corona crisis. The call for an exit strategy for the corona measures is growing louder every day. Spahn said in the German media that a “positive trend” could be observed in the number of infections. This trend still needs to “stabilize.” A prerequisite for any potential steps towards normality is that the population should stick to the restrictions placed on daily life even during these Easter holidays.
“If the current positive trend in infection rates is maintained, the federal government will be able to “talk to the leaders of the federal states about a gradual return to normality after the Easter holidays,” Spahn said. He added that it should not be forgotten that there is a time lag of 10 to 20 days after infection before a patient is admitted to intensive care. That’s why it’s far “too early for the all-clear.”
The Minister President of Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), Stephan Weil, shares the same view. “Nobody should count on suddenly being able to get everything going again from April the 20th onwards. Absolutely not,” said the SPD politician on national television. “I have no idea if there is any possibility of relaxing some of the restrictions.” Weil expressed the hope that the states would agree on a uniform approach. This could prevent any confusion from arising.
There is now a lot of criticism in Germany about the varying approaches of the separate federal states. The general question is why the federal states cannot all agree on a uniform regulation. Several commentators have pointed out that if a municipality or a district is particularly badly affected by the virus, even stricter rules can always be imposed there.
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‘Continue to work from home at least until the end of April,’ Margarete Schramböck (Austria)
It seems that with the opening of smaller shops in Austria next Tuesday, the green light has been given for an easing of the corona measures. Minister of Economic Affairs Margarete Schramböck (ÖVP) and the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (WKÖ) as well as the Labour Chamber (AK) called on companies to continue with their home office setups and teleworking wherever possible until at least the end of April. Austria adopted the strategy of the southern countries with its strict lockdown. It worked. Nevertheless, Austria still wants to let go of the reins only very gradually.
“Working from home is an effective means of minimizing physical contact and consequently the risk of infection with the coronavirus,” Schramböck said last week. “Everyone who works from home is making a significant contribution towards reducing the pandemic.”
At the moment only supermarkets, drugstores, pharmacies and tobacconists are open. As of April 14th, other small shops and artisanal businesses, as well as do-it-yourself stores and garden centers, will also be allowed to get back to work again. From the 1st of May, all shops and hair salons are allowed to open subject to strict conditions.
Hotels, restaurants and all other businesses in the service sector must wait a while longer. The situation will be assessed at the end of April with a view to a gradual reopening from mid-May onwards in line with the government’s roadmap. It has been speculated that schools and kindergartens might reopen in stages.
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‘We must not drop our guard,” Silvio Brusaferro (Italy)
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte expects a slight relaxation of the production shutdown towards the end of April. “Some sectors of the economy will be able to resume their business activities. If the scientists give their approval, we will be able to relax some measures starting at the end of April,” said Conte in an interview with the BBC. “They’re positive signs, but make no mistake: we’re far from there yet.”
Medical institutions also state that the infection curve is on the decline. “It’s a positive sign, but it shouldn’t cause us to drop our guard,” said Silvio Brusaferro, president of the Higher Institute of Health. “The trend shows just how effective the measures put in place have been in curbing the epidemic across various contexts. Lombardy confirms this positive trend,” he added. Numbers are falling even in the southern regions, “albeit rather limited.”
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‘There will be a before- and after-COVID-19,’ Sophie Wilmès, Prime Minister of Belgium
Belgium’s senior federal and regional ministers, together with scientific experts, will again review the lockdown mid next week. Prime Minister Wilmès has announced the line-up of the GEES, the group of experts charged with drafting the exit strategy. It is a group of doctors, virologists, and economists. These experts need to develop a strategic vision in order to ease the measures taken by the government in the fight against the coronavirus.
However, it is clear that after the 19th of April things will not be the same as they were before the crisis. Though there is a sense of exasperation too, especially in the education sector, because politicians and experts will not make this decision until next week. Moreover, numerous companies, which were forced to close their doors in panic weeks ago, also want clarity now.
“There will be a before- and after-COVID-19,” the Prime Minister said last week in the Belgian Parliament. “Both in how we view our relationship with others, and how we view the way we should build our society. This is clear to me. And the issue of economic recovery or development or restructuring, as we would like to call it, will certainly play a predominant role in this reflection. On a Belgian level as well as on a European and international level.
And I think that all of these highly strategic questions should not be discussed just like that, at least not on a Belgian level. But instead, where fundamental choices for the future of our country are concerned, within the framework of a government which has full authority as well as in parliament.”
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Contributors to this article are:
Linda Bak ( The Netherlands), Katarzyna Zachariasz (Poland), Koen Greven (Spain), Arnoud Cornelissen (Germany).