The last full week of August saw new peaks in corona figures in many countries. While Benelux already experienced an upturn in July, the virus has now spread more rapidly in countries such as Italy, Denmark and Germany. Until now, it had remained relatively quiet there.
Does this have to do with returning holidaymakers? The Germans think so; this vacation effect was discussed in my previous European article about corona. Between 22 and 28 August, vacation countries Spain and France were the absolute pandemic hotspots of the continent.
The fact that travel advice went en masse to orange or red is therefore not surprising. This is what it looked like on the continental corona map. A comparison with last week and month is possible with the interactive sliders.
Rise and stabilization
The three countries with the largest increases are Romania, France and Spain, just like last week, while the latter country is now almost completely dark purple. The metropolitan region of Madrid reported no fewer than 14,415 new cases in a week, an increase of 243.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. The rest of the continental top five are also in Spain: the Balearic Islands, La Rioja, the Basque Country and Navarre.
In addition, northeastern France is firmly on the rise with the largest increase in the capital region of Île-de-France. Capital cities are often the country’s largest corona hotspots. This is also the case in the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Austria. This is logical since the virus can spread faster in densely populated areas.
Portugal, Hungary and the East of Germany are still keeping the virus out pretty well. But for the lowest numbers we have to look to the Baltic Sea. Finland and the three Baltic States once again seem to have little reason to fear a virus.
Does this trend also recur on the Our World in Data cards? The proportion of positive tests is low in northeastern Europe and also shows no upward trend.
Percentage of positive tests
Mortality by COVID-19 per 1 m inhabitants
Development of GNP in second quarter
Sweating in the Finnish sauna or on a Spanish beach
We can speak of a second wave or summer peak everywhere in Europe, or nearly everywhere. Portugal and the East of Germany are still keeping the pandemics out for the time being, but there is one country that is stands out: Finland.
This has been the case since spring. The country has relatively few problems with COVID-19: only 8,049 positive corona tests have occurred since the beginning of the pandemic and only 335 people have died. That’s very little for a country with an average older population than most Eastern and Central European countries that also have low mortality rates. At 0.3%, the number of positive tests is the lowest in Europe. Of the Eurozone, it was also the Finns who suffered the smallest blow in the second quarter. The number there was limited to only 3.2%.
Spain, on the other hand, as in the spring, is again an outlier in all undesirable areas. A total of 455,621 inhabitants were infected and almost 30,000 of them did not survive. The spread there is currently the fastest; mortality was already high and is now increasing again. The number of positive tests is highest there, after Ukraine and Croatia. Spain’s economy shrank by no less than 18.5%, the sharpest decline in the entire Eurozone.
This is a difference like day and night between two modern Eurozone countries that have experienced the last six months in completely different ways. How can this difference be explained? Let’s take a closer look at Finland and Spain.
Bastion on the Baltic
Usually when it comes to quirky, liberal and ‘successful’ corona policies, neighboring Sweden is discussed. But this country is actually not so special on a European scale. Whether you look at it from an economic or epidemiological point of view: Finland is handling it well. Why is that? The Scandinavian country, which ironically has both the happiest population and the highest number of depressions, has been living in a ‘fear of the worst’ for decades. The country shares more than a thousand kilometers of border with expansionist Russia and is also jokingly called the ‘Doomsday Prepper’ of Scandinavia.
The Finns have been aware of a threat from the East since the Second World War, one that has never really disappeared. Because of this, on the one hand, the resilience among the population is considerable when the government warns of an acute threat. On the other hand, the Finns have decades of experience with emergency scenarios intended for the invasion of a foreign army. They can scale up their medical facilities in no time to accommodate an unexpected flow of people in need of care. The threat of an angry neighbor was one of the reasons that South Korea and Taiwan also managed to keep themselves out of harm’s way.
Just like these Asian countries, the Finns have a strict border policy. Most Europeans are still not allowed to enter the country without a valid reason. Another similarity is that Finland is a centralist unitary state in which a federal government calls the shots and local governments are restricted to an executive role. One of these measures was the introduction of a universal basic income. Furthermore, the country was able to rely on its generous welfare state and the reopening of schools was no problem in view of its small school classes with plenty of space to keep their distance.
Finally, there is the cautious and introverted Finnish national character. Even within fairly aloof Scandinavia, they are known as introverted, modest and averse to small talk. Keeping a one and a half meter distance seems to come naturally to them, even before corona. Severe measures that restrict everyday life? As in South Korea, this has never really been an issue. That is, unless you come from abroad.
The corona crisis is very different in Spain. Here it now seems to be going completely off the rails for the second time after the country experienced the highest levels of infections the spring. Both economically and epidemiologically, Spain is a disaster. The country is largely dependent on tourism and the automotive industry, precisely the two sectors that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. With 18.5% contraction in the last quarter and youth unemployment of 40.5%, the country is in dire straits.
Things went well in the spring in this federal country where autonomous regions are free to decide for themselves to a large extent. Nevertheless, this does not make the country any more politically stable. While the coronavirus rages through the country, Madrid and the regional governments accuse each other of mismanagement. There was a policy, but it did not help much. Politically, a lot has gone wrong: the government completely underestimated the danger in the spring, the importance of a basic income was not recognized and contact tracing is not carried out.
To avoid a disastrous third quarter economically, the country reopened its borders after a very severe lockdown. Economic interests are huge for the second most popular vacation country on the planet. The hospitable, sociable and extroverted Spaniards are known for making everyone’s stay – including their own – as pleasant as possible. Physical contact is ingrained in the nature of the people, just like talking with one’s hands. The fact that tourists brought the virus with them, they seemed to accept. But will this ‘second round’ cost them dearly again?
Among the Spanish population, the dissatisfaction with the government is enormous. Only a third of the population still has confidence in the government’s approach. After a severe lockdown in which more than a million fines were levied, the Spaniards have grown tired of all the restrictions. During the summer months, in spite of face mask requirements, partying and physical contact continued and coronavirus spread as usual. A new package of measures should reduce this, but the infections continue to increase rapidly for the time being.
A final difference between Spain and Finland lies in the lockdown measures. These were very strict in Spain and not at all in Finland. Below you can see how ‘draconian’ the restrictions were in Europe by country at the end of April. Our World in Data developed a scale from 0 to 100 to measure this.
Lockdown not a key to success
Has the Finnish government kept itself corona-free with draconian measures and a heavy lockdown? Not at all. The country had one of the mildest lockdowns in Europe and broadly resembled Sweden. However, there were far fewer deaths in Finland and the economic damage was kept to a minimum.
Spain was among the most repressive countries in Europe last spring. Admittedly, more measures were needed here than in Finland, but in the north they had the plans in place as early as March, so corona never really became a problem.
Four months later, Spain is still ‘stricter’ than Finland while the number of infections and deaths in the southern European country is skyrocketing. Finland is currently similar to Sweden in terms of restrictions. This can be adjusted with the play button on the map itself.
But how can this enormous difference be explained? A combination of resilience among the population, pro-active government policy, contact tracing, guarding the external borders and a big difference in the social mindset and economy.
Can Spain copy the Finnish example? Probably not. The two countries are far too different for that. A pandemic policy must fit the specific situation. Finland seems to have a 6-0 lead on COVID-19 because of its centralized structure, welfare state, alert population, history, timid culture and unified state.
Does the healing effect of the Finnish sauna also play a role, as President Lukashenko of Belarus suggested? There is no evidence for that. Unfortunately.