The coronavirus is now an inescapable part of everyday life. Last January we were taken aback by the bizarre lockdown in China. And less than half a year later in Europe, we can look back on our own versions of the ‘draconian’ policies that no one ever thought possible.
For Europe, the misery set in back in mid-February when the north of Italy was suddenly confronted with a huge surge in COVID-19 infections. In the weeks that followed, the virus spread to every corner of the continent via Lombardy and later Austria and Switzerland.
Governments were presented with a ‘devil’s dilemma’: what should be done? In this series of four articles, we take a closer look at the strategies of various countries throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Where did it go well and where did it go badly? IO will answer this last question this week.
Swedish herd immunity is taking (too) long
On the chart above which shows the number of confirmed diagnoses over the past week, Sweden is rather conspicuous. A conscious choice was made to highlight Sweden. By exposing the population to the virus in a controlled way, the authorities assumed that herd immunity to COVID-19 would eventually emerge. The country had less severe restrictions than neighboring countries and relied primarily on appealing to the population’s individual sense of responsibility.
Allowing the pandemic to progress in a controlled way was thought to be the quickest way to bring any suffering to an end and minimize the economic damage. Apart from a ban on meetings with more than fifty people present, everything has remained open. Chef de Mission is virologist Anders Tegnell at the Swedish health authority, who with his idiosyncratic approach almost achieved cult status both at home and abroad, especially during the early days.
Support for this experiment has eroded substantially now that the number of new diagnoses is in fact drastically decreasing everywhere in Europe. Except in Sweden. The herd immunity that was hoped for – whereby 60-70% of the population would have eventually developed antibodies – did not materialize. With a tally of more than 56,000 infections and 5,000 deaths, these projected percentages are still a long way off after three months. According to a comprehensive survey of the Stockholm population, only 7.3% had antibodies towards the end of May.
The relative mortality rate is now four times higher than in Denmark and at least ten times higher than in neighboring Norway. Scandinavian countries are keeping their borders with Sweden shut like a clam for the time being. Whether or not Tegnell’s experiment will carry on needs to be determined by an independent committee. Tegnell himself admitted two weeks ago that major mistakes have indeed been made. Has Sweden also fared any differently from an economic point of view? Barely, so say the figures from analysts.
Bloodbath blights British indecision
Like Sweden, Britain had initially seemed to bet on herd immunity. But by the end of March, when the number of infected people was doubling every few days, the British chose to stop burying their heads in the sand. Ironically enough, the amicable Prime Minister Boris Johnson became infected with the virus himself at the start of April. He probably only really understood the seriousness of the situation for him and his country once he himself was admitted to intensive care. The Prime Minister’s disease progression may appear metaphorical for the whole of the United Kingdom. They underestimated the risks, reacted slowly, and only intervened when it was already far too late. Nevertheless, a choice was ultimately made for a mild variant of the lockdown.
By mid-June, the country has recorded more than 42,000 deaths and has the second-highest number of fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants after Belgium (which does count all coronavirus-related deaths in care homes as well, unlike many countries. The UK has only started including these since the end of April, ed). The mortality rate for confirmed COVID-19 cases is no less than 22% in the regions of London and East of England. Sky-high percentages compared to 4.7% in Germany and 1.8% in Slovakia. The fact that even The Netherlands, with their low number of tests at 12.3%, is still far below this figure, clearly shows that the British could have done much more.
“Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, the death toll could have been more than halved,” health expert Neil Ferguson concluded. He was advising the government in the early days of the crisis until he himself was forced to resign for violating quarantine rules. The country was the last to go into lockdown, was struggling for months with delivery problems around face masks and PPE. Plus, it did not get the testing capacity up and running until just a few weeks ago. Nonetheless, the end of the first peak seems to be in sight. Despite the many tests, the number of new positive diagnoses there has fallen to numbers that are increasingly in line with European levels.
Spanish siesta during the crucial preliminary phase
After the Italians were overwhelmed by the pandemic, Spain was the second country where the spread of the virus escalated out of control. The infamous Champions League match between Atalanta Bergamo and Spanish Valencia unleashed unprecedented coronavirus hotspots in the Bergamo region within no time.
Despite the presence of thousands of Spanish supporters who evidently also brought COVID-19 to their own country, the risk of a pandemic was even reduced to ‘minimal‘ on March 4. Meanwhile, major events went ahead. Millions of Spaniards were subsequently exposed to a deadly virus without any form of protection, information, or warning. In just ten days the number of infections rose from 228 to 6,381, while the ‘minimal safety risk’ was turned into a lockdown of the most draconian variety.
Until June, Spaniards were only allowed out on the streets if they had a particularly good reason. The police had assistance from the army to keep everything under wraps. Did civilians stay indoors en masse like good citizens as a result of this? Not exactly … At the end of May, the Ministry of the Interior announced that the authorities had issued more than 1 million fines for lockdown violations. Comparatively far more than in Italy and France who had similar policies in force.
Three months later, the rise in new patients is still above the European average. La Rioja and Madrid have for months been regions of the country with the highest density of diagnoses in the whole of Europe. And they are just behind Great Britain in terms of mortality rates. The economic damage is also disastrous. The Central Bank of Spain predicts a drop of 9 to 15 %, percentages that correspond to figures from the 1930s …
Belarusians hot around the collar as vodka-espousing dictator looks the other way
In the event of a pandemic, there are more or less two strategies possible. Either a controlled approach to herd immunity, such as in Sweden. Or, as Spain did, implement measures to lower the rate of the spread of a virus to such an extent that the exponential growth of the pandemic is brought to a halt. Yet Belarus chose a third option: do nothing at all. President Alexandr Lukashenko made it especially clear how he would not allow himself to be intimidated by coronaviruses. Moreover, he showed on television how he was protecting himself against this ‘touch of ‘flu.’ A combination of ice hockey, vodka, tractor rides, and a military display of power would, in his opinion, be the Belarusian panacea.
Given that Lukashenko has been winning ‘democratic elections’ with percentages of around 80% since 1992, and that he considers free press to be about as nonsensical as corona measures, the figures from Belarus must be taken with a huge pinch of salt. Even on the basis of these unreliable data, the country is in a bad state where diagnoses are concerned. Thanks to a meager testing policy, the number of diagnoses recorded is 57,333 for a population of just under ten million.
The death toll of 337 (0.5% of confirmed cases) is unrealistically low in this respect. The government’s (lack of) policy is leading to increasing dissatisfaction among the population. Many of whom are also making this more and more clear out on the streets. And with elections on the horizon, a win for the incumbent president suddenly no longer feels like a foregone conclusion. Is Lukashenko taking this threat seriously? His two most promising political opponents have since been compelled to self-isolate as a precaution.
The countries in this article do not necessarily constitute a ranking of the four ‘worst’ countries affected by corona. On top of that, they are not the only countries subject to heavy criticism of their corona strategy. A lot of things also did not go well in Russia, Belgium, France, and Italy.
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