Europe must quantify the lessons from its Covid-19 nightmare to quash a second wave
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Europe must quantify the lessons from its Covid-19 nightmare to quash a second wave

Friday, 31 July 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Credit: City of Brussels

After a stumbling initial response to the coronavirus pandemic, the EU now appears to be pulling out all the stops to show solidarity with hard-hit member states—including negotiating a €750 billion recovery fund and forming a vaccine alliance.

Unfortunately, despite these substantial financial commitments, Europe seems to be on the cusp of a second wave of the disease. As cases surge across the continent, EU countries have hit pause on reopening their economies and have started reintroducing internal border controls, though there’s a general consensus that returning to full lockdowns should be a last resort.

Indeed, facing the first wave of the disease this spring with little warning and even less information about the virus, European countries had little choice but to impose strict quarantines — regardless of the economic and social costs. European policymakers now have the ability to draw on empirical analyses of what worked and what didn’t work during the first wave of the pandemic — which countries were able to quickly flatten the curve? Which were able to ramp up testing to get an accurate picture of their epidemiological situation? Which measures tamped down the infection rate without sending unemployment soaring? — and to use those insights to respond more effectively.

Surprisingly, while plenty of pundits have cheered the countries that have taken decisive action against the virus, such as New Zealand, and sounded alarm bells over Sweden’s controversial tactic of letting life go on as usual, relatively few comprehensive assessments have been carried out over what pandemic strategies are most effective.

In June, the Economist Intelligence Unit released a ranking of OECD members’ efforts to control the pandemic, but the study’s methodology came under fire after it ranked Belgium last due to its high mortality rate, despite the fact that Belgium counts Covid-19 deaths differently from other countries. The fact that the US’s response was classified as “good” while countries like South Korea and Japan were labelled “fair” only cast further doubt on the study’s accuracy. Another evaluation, by the Hong Kong-based research consortium the Deep Knowledge Group, painted a clear picture of a two-speed Europe: Germany’s response was ranked second in the entire world thanks to its overall healthcare capacity and an efficient quarantine, while France and Slovakia languished beneath India and Mexico, dragged down by insufficient testing and shortages of key equipment.

A recently-released study from the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics (HSE), concentrating on 48 countries representing some 82.5% of the global population, meanwhile, offers one of the most comprehensive assessments yet of different governments’ pandemic responses, highlighting specific shortcomings and taking into consideration the economic and social effects of the pandemic which other studies have largely sidelined.

The analysis, assessed the effectiveness of measures against the coronavirus pandemic based on three key parameters: medical (whether a health care system managed to withstand the impact of the pandemic and the number of lives saved); social (whether a country managed to uphold incomes and jobs) and economic (whether a country managed to ensure the sustainability of its economy).

The three-pronged evaluation was designed to give a holistic picture of how deftly governments navigated the pandemic by finding the right tradeoffs to control the spread of the virus without gutting the economy and leaving people out of work. Australia topped the leaderboard as its healthcare system far outpaced any other country, while the study authors’ native Russia placed seventh overall thanks to its extensive testing and measures to maintain business activity and prevent mass layoffs. Many EU countries, meanwhile, scored alarmingly low. Spain, whose number of fatalities per 100,000 people was the third highest among all countries surveyed, and Romania even scored below the United States, whose response to the pandemic has been widely criticized.

European countries’ performance in the HSE study offers some preliminary indications of policies to maintain and areas to improve before a resurgence of the pandemic. Thanks to their strong social safety nets, seven out of the top ten performers in terms of keeping unemployment rolls low were EU countries—alongside Russia, Japan and the United Kingdom—suggesting that keeping subsidized furlough policies in place will be essential in the coming months.

On the other hand, many EU countries achieved low marks for the number of hospital beds per capita, falling far behind Asian juggernauts Japan and South Korea and post-Soviet countries including Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, which have invested heavily in optimizing healthcare systems. It’s no accident that Germany and Austria — two of the EU countries with the highest spare hospital capacity — also have some of the European bloc’s lowest fatality rates and were able to ease lockdown measures sooner after the first wave. OECD data has previously shown that since 1990, most European countries have drastically reduced their number of hospital beds in order to slash public health budgets — the pandemic has highlighted how urgently this trend needs to be reversed.

The European Commission warned as early as April that “large-scale testing is key to detecting and slowing down the coronavirus pandemic and is a crucial pre-condition for a gradual return to our normal way of life”, yet the HSE study makes it clear that some member states are still falling short of the mark. The UK and Russia top the scoreboard for testing per capita, with roughly 17,000 and 15,000 tests respectively per 100,000 people. The Netherlands, in comparison, is only carrying out around 4,000 tests per 100,000 residents and warned earlier this week that it may soon face a shortage of tests.

It seems that a second wave is inevitable: the disease will continue to wax and wane until an effective vaccine is rolled out. By deploying the most powerful tool in their arsenal — the wealth of data gleaned from every measure the world has tried so far to bring the pandemic under control — European policymakers can mitigate the virus’s resurgence without devastating economic and social consequences.