Europe has become the epicentre of the pandemic according to WHO.
On Friday, the European Commission announced a package of economic measures to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The important economic package announced today deals with the situation of today. We stand ready to do more as the situation evolves. We will do whatever is necessary to support the Europeans and the European economy,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said when presenting the package.
The measures include the losing up of rules and giving member states more flexibility in providing state aid and using national budgets to compensate companies for damages cause by the outbreak of the virus. The Commission will also deploy its own budget and funds and mobilise funding to support companies in need of liquidity.
The Commission has experience of using its toolbox of economic measures. When it comes to containing the spread of an infectious decease it has less experience and has been reluctant to act in time. This is a national competency and the role of the Commission was, and still is, limited to coordinate the actions by the member states.
When asked at the press briefing on Friday if EU was ready to help Italy, a country in lockdown and the EU member state most severely hit by the corona virus, von der Leyen replied, “We are all Italians in this moment”. European solidarity is all very well but the EU needs also to do its utmost to prevent a similar situation in other member states.
In a video message issued on Sunday afternoon, she called on all EU member states to protect public health and to keep the Single Market functioning. She explained that the Commission today adopted an export authorisation scheme for protective equipment and intends tomorrow to launch joint public procurement with member states for testing kits and respiratory ventilators.
In the beginning, the outbreak of the corona virus was limited to China. Although the situation was evolving day by day, there was apparently no planning for the worst scenario in which all of Europe finds itself now.
It took unnecessarily long time for the member states to issue travel restrictions, introduce health checks at borders, speed up testing and put infected people in quarantine.
By now almost all member states, without waiting for the Commission, have introduced tough measures, some more, some less. People are advised or obliged to work from home, not to travel, and to keep a distance to each other. Gatherings above a certain number of people are forbidden. Schools and restaurants are closed and returning nationals and foreigners are put in home quarantine.
Border checks have been put into place by most member states but on Friday there was still no overview of them by the Commission. At previous press briefings, the Commission has said that member states are allowed to impose internal border controls for public health reasons but that they needed to notify them to the Commission.
However, following a video-conference with the justice and home affairs council on Friday, Swedish Commissioner Ylva Johansson admitted that health checks at the internal borders are not considered as border checks and do not require notification.
Updated risk assessment
On Thursday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) issued an updated risk assessment. Even that came too late. Since late February, the majority of cases reported are from outside China, with an increasing majority of these reported from EU/EEA countries and the UK, ECDC noted.
“In the current situation where COVID-19 is rapidly spreading worldwide and the number of cases in Europe is rising with increasing pace in several affected areas, there is a need for immediate targeted action.” ECDC warns that in a few weeks or even days, it is likely that similar situations to those seen in China and Italy may be seen in other European countries.
“A rapid shift from a containment to a mitigation approach is required, as the rapid increase in cases, that is anticipated in the coming days to few weeks may not provide decision makers and hospitals enough time to realise, accept and adapt their response accordingly if not implemented ahead of time,” ECDC concluded.
In Italy, doctors have been forced to prioritize patients in matters of life and death. Italian professor in intensive health care, Giacomo Grasseli, said that the only way to avoid a disaster is to contain the spread of the virus. “You have to teach people to change their behaviour,” he said in an interview in Dagens Nyheter. “If not, the number of patients will be unmanageable for the health care systems.”
Message of hope
On a positive note, China seems to have managed to stop the spread of the virus. According to WHO figures, 9,769 new cases were reported globally on Saturday, of them only 18 in China. 438 new deaths were reported, of them 14 in China. People in China are also slowly returning to work.
It takes time to resume economic activity and factories are estimated to run at 50 – 60 percent capacity. But China can already now help Europe to overcome the corona crisis and is reportedly doing it by sending teams of doctors, respirators and other medical equipment to Italy and other countries.
A message of hope was also issued by WHO’s Director-General on Saturday. “Our message to countries continues to be: you must take a comprehensive approach. Not testing alone. Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all,” he said.
“The experience of China, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and others clearly demonstrates that aggressive testing and contact tracing, combined with social distancing measures and community mobilization, can prevent infections and save lives.”
The most important thing at the moment is to “flatten the curve” and stop the exponential increase of infected persons. Otherwise the health care systems in the member states will be overwhelmed with patients with severe corona symptoms.
The Brussels Times