Corona in Europe will soon come to an end. Because developments in recent weeks have seemed to be relatively similar – a lot of infections, comparatively few hospitalizations, and an easing-up of restrictions bonanza unlike any other. So, the weekly update plays a minor role this time around. In the final weeks of this column and nearly two years into the pandemic, the time for looking back is finally dawning. A retrospect over the 24 months of the pandemic in the Netherlands and Europe, with plenty of maps, is what is planned for the next two editions.
This week, a scathing report was published by the Dutch Safety Board that left no stone unturned for the Dutch corona response, or the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, Minister Hugo de Jonge, and the boss of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Jaap van Dissel. Yet the Netherlands is not the only country where so much went awry. In fact, other countries also made plenty of mistakes. Errors were made elsewhere too, and on a massive scale. In this story, we zoom in on five of these blunders made by European governments during the pandemic.
But first, something closer to home and a tad more topical: The weekly figures in the Low Countries showing a sharp decline of infections in Belgium and France in the week of Valentine’s Day, increases among the Germans, and the Netherlands where a large part of the country has passed the peak. But the north still has some catching up to do, Friesland was the hardest hit. As far as we know, this was not, as was the case last week, caused by overdue reporting of infections.
From west to east
The Netherlands is behaving markedly differently from Belgium during the Omicron wave. For some unknown reason, the number of infections in the Netherlands remains relatively high while the decline south of us has been underway for weeks. All the same, the red/purple colors are retreating more and more, starting in the regions where omicron first set foot: the Randstad and the south of the Netherlands.
Over the past two weeks, the top regions with the highest infection rates shifted from below to well above the main rivers. Just like the west of Germany. Yet even here, the feverish easing of restrictions has taken hold. As one of the last in Europe, the German government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz also indicated that it wanted to be rid of the corona regulations – including a strict 2G policy – as soon as possible.
High peaks, deep troughs
You would not be able to tell by the colors, but the Netherlands was one of the steepest to drop in Europe this week. This was because Tuesday, February 8 – the catch-up with 321,000 new infection reports in one 24-hour period – disappeared from our rolling seven-day demographic. How do these unadjusted figures compare to this week? Like this.
The Netherlands in the big picture
Also on a European level, it seems that Omicron is heading for the exit. The virus, that more than 10 million Europeans still tested positive in some weeks of last January, accounted for just over 7 million new corona diagnoses. The route across the continent is also from west to east. Central European countries in particular, with Delta’s viral full-blown outbreak in November still fresh in their minds, are seeing a slight uptick in numbers.
However, the falling numbers will not prevent the Netherlands from being among the top European countries even without any catch-up of data or the ‘ Danish’ testing capacity. This is not so much owing to any increase, but rather because the rest is dropping faster. In Sweden, for example, they have stopped large-scale testing altogether. And because in the near future such decisions are likely to become more frequent, the creation of corona maps will eventually (thankfully) become altogether impossible.
This is what the week of 11 to 17 looked like on the updated map of Europe:
Although the peak is over throughout almost all of the Netherlands, the figures in Friesland are still on the high side. And where the Danes can point to their colossal testing capacity as the cause for their high numbers, this is not the case in the Netherlands. Whatever the cause may be, it earns six provinces a spot in the weekly Increase Top 20.
Friesland, at the ninth position in the sub-national ranking and with 3.6% of the population testing positive, became the national leader between February 11 and 17. Groningen, Drenthe, Overijssel, Gelderland and Utrecht can also be spotted in the upper ranges.
Shake off the pandemic!
Drops, lots of drops. Noteworthy are the steep rises in large Russian cities. Covid-19 is still able to cause very many full ICUs there, because not even half the population has received a syringe of Spoednik twice in their upper arm.
The picture in the rest of Europe is by and large in line with recent weeks. In any case, the downward trend can no longer be ignored.
These slider charts show how, overall, Europe is doing better and better. Will the pandemic on our continent be the first to be over?
1. Dystopian Irish data failure
Oh yes! Five government failures during the corona crisis. Starting with Ireland! For the first time since December 22, the Irish have finally managed to share subnational corona data with the world. Fairly simple task for a government, right? Not in digitally-challenged Ireland where the corona crisis also turned into a dystopian episode of Black Mirror.
The poorly-secured computer system of the Irish Public Health Authority was taken hostage by a group of Russian cybercriminals in May last year. Using ransomware, the gang managed to hold about 80 percent of the healthcare system hostage. Since the authorities refused to transfer this amount to them, the electronic patient records were not accessible. The blackout did not last minutes, but instead took several days. This had enormous consequences.
Hospitals were barely able to operate without this data, non-acute surgeries were forced to be postponed, privacy-sensitive health data of millions of Irish people in the hands of a Russian internet gang and no corona statistics at the lower echelons of government. After six days of a disrupted healthcare system, cyber chaos and global ridicule, Public Health Minister Stephen Donnelly accepted the offer to take over a decryption key, a code in exchange for money to pay for the digital hostage situation. While he has denied that the government came through with money, it remains an odd story. Did these ruthless Russian cybercriminals suddenly have a nagging conscience?
It took the government about three months to repair the damage. It eventually managed to recover about 95% of the seized data. The total damage was said to be about US$600 million. Subsequent investigation revealed that a vulnerability in the antiquated Windows XP installed on a government computer provided the gateway for the St. Petersburg gang to hold an entire country hostage for nearly a week.
Irish ICT began to sputter again late last year when the number of Omicron infections went through the roof. Apparently some official was in no mood for any extra work because the “numerous infections” meant that for two months, it was once again incapable of processing things per county or municipality.
2. Scandinavian Zombie mink soap opera
Did those Danes really do everything perfectly when it came to corona? Not quite. One of the biggest blunders that the Danish government made was to cull all 17 million minks after it was discovered that these animals were susceptible to Covid-19. Since Denmark also had no desire to serve as a breeding ground for nefarious new variants by the end of 2020. No sooner said than done. The breeding farms were bailed out, all 17 million mink were culled, problem solved.
Bury or cremate: What do you do with several million minks? Initially, the Minister of Agriculture decided to put the remains in a mass grave. A few days later, the horror movie began when suddenly a rotting mink carcass popped its head up above the ground. This became more, a lot more. The dead animals were quickly labeled zombies by the media, causing Denmark to hit the world headlines with this venture. But what actually went wrong here?
Because dead bodies swell and millions of these were lying in a grave, the zombified bodies surfaced on their own accord. And because the mass grave was only one meter deep and not the much more usual two, it created a horror show second to none. A month later, the furry graveyard was violated for the second time after the dead animals’ state of decomposition endangered the quality of a nearby drinking water source. In the end, the zombie minks that were neither zombies nor had covid wound up in the incinerator of a biomass power plant. Cremations after all.
Only a few days after the facts came out, the minister responsible for agriculture resigned. During the parliamentary inquiry, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen was also questioned about her plan of action for the pandemic. The prime minister allegedly decided on her own initiative without any legal basis to cull all mink as quickly as possible. Frederiksen still stands by her decision. After all, millions of animals crammed into small pens are the optimal mutation-breeding machine for vicious virus variants. Following in the wake of the Danes, the Netherlands also culled all mink farms. Quietly. Without zombies, the resignation of ministers or parliamentary inquiries.
3. Dancing with Delta
Being keen to set itself apart from countries that did have their affairs in order, the Netherlands decided early last year to throw all its weight behind safe events. With the help of experimental field labs, our country was the only place in Western Europe where drinking a beer at the bar in a pub was permitted.
On the basis of a mediocre final report that had all kinds of scientific flaws, more and more things were allowed from June onwards. Since it was not yet the turn of younger people to get their vaccinations, everyone had to be tested by a commercial party before an event started. The idea was that partygoers would not overburden the GGD capacity this way.
By the end of June, it was time to start dancing again. With Janssen, the vaccine whereby ‘one shot would be enough and so ideal for young people who were too busy partying or queuing up in the long waiting lines at a Test for Access location. On the weekend immediately following the big Janssen injection drive, everyone was allowed to don their dancng shoes and head out into the nightlife with practically no corona rules. Since the vaccines only worked after a week or two and the Delta variant was just making its appearance, lots of dance floors turned into superspreader events. The Netherlands broke an unsurpassed infection record in one week with the R value even increasing to 3, which was unheard of before Omicron.
The trial was over after two weekends. The Netherlands had not merely made a grand fool of itself. Additional measures were needed throughout the summer, so that the 2021 festival summer lasted only two weeks as a result. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge was allowed to stay on after that. With a shot in the arm and an illusion poorer, the parties, festivals and many other summer plans were put back on ice.
4. The £37 billion app
Corona apps were totally hip in the second half of 2020. By leaving part of the track and tracing to an app, work was supposed to be done extremely efficiently. The British government wanted more, much more. The NHS app was supposed to become the ultimate and universal lifesaver of all pandemic perils; related issues and information could be arranged within one and the same app, e.g.: test appointments, test results, entry tickets, quarantine control, symptom checkers, vaccination stamps and travel documents. All in one.
The main goal of the NHS app was to get through the winter of 2020/21 without having to go into lockdown again. In fact, that whole app never ran smoothly at any stage. Each time, the development costs went up up and up and something else popped up that ‘this app was not capable of’. In the end, the British taxpayer paid a sum that incrementally rose to a whopping £37 billion, more than 42 billion in euros.
The overpriced app floundered on many levels, but the biggest source of irritation arose after it became apparent that the application was not even capable of performing its primary task, which was to automate track and tracing and infections, which was meant to prevent lockdowns. Notifying a test result within a twenty-four hour period succeeded in only 40 percent of the cases.
At first, this most aspirational corona app of all was installed on the phone by just slightly more than a quarter of the population. Unfortunately, this hyped-up app proved to be very fleeting in nature. By the end of 2021, the app had all but died. With only 220,000 weekly users in the closing week of November, the British showed conclusively that the flailing corona app was the one no one used.
Nevertheless, by the end of 2020, the United Kingdom went into lockdown, as did the rest of Europe.
5. The trauma of Portugal
Almost nowhere on earth did the Alpha variant invade so mercilessly as it did in Portugal. The country that, in the first year of the pandemic, could mostly look back on solid defensive measures. With face masks indoors and outdoors, a strict self-isolation and quarantine policy, and sky-high fines for violations, Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s government kept the corona crisis reasonably under control during the first year. Then there was a kind of break during the holidays to allow the general public to spend time with their loved ones.
The fact that this was heeded en masse was evident from the number of infections. The result? At the end of January, Portugal was the most serious corona outbreak in Europe. With mortality rates that dwarfed the first wave and no hospital beds available anywhere in the country.
Meanwhile, the Portugese population was subjected to just about the strictest lockdown in all of Europe with one rather simple rule: Stay home. Portugal not only had a curfew in place, but also a midday curfew that went into effect as early as 1 pm. The country was kept in this lockdown until the end of April.
One year later, Portugal is the EU country with a 98% vaccination rate of the adult population. It is not known whether this is due to the out-of-control holidays, the trauma of Code Black or having to go through life as a morning person for three months.