Europe’s pandemic handling is tarnishing the continent’s brand
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Europe’s pandemic handling is tarnishing the continent’s brand

Thursday, 01 April 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
© Belga

There is finally light at the end of the Covid tunnel. Four vaccines have been approved by the European Medicines Agency in record time – the first of them developed in Germany by an immigrant from Turkey.

Scientists are already fast-tracking tweaked vaccines capable of neutralising dangerous new coronavirus variants that are emerging around the world. So once enough people in Europe have been inoculated, we should finally be able to put this lethal pandemic behind us.

Yet as they flit between complacency and panic, and pile idiocy upon incompetence, European politicians seem set on sabotaging these hopes. First, they failed to prepare for the pandemic. Then, they repeatedly failed to learn from their mistakes. And now, they are compounding the failings of the EU’s vaccine procurement efforts by flailing around casting blame on everyone except themselves. It’s a disaster and a disgrace that has global repercussions as well as domestic ones.

The AstraZeneca vaccine fiasco encapsulates European politicians’ bungling. The vaccine has repeatedly been deemed both effective and safe by the EU’s medicines regulator. It is the best-value, easiest-to-deliver and most plentiful vaccine licensed for use in the EU. But even though the Anglo-Swedish company is supplying the life-saving vaccine at cost price, European politicians have shamelessly slandered it. They have repeatedly cast doubt on the vaccine’s efficacy and safety – and then complained of insufficient supplies while stocks go unused because of the aspersions they have cast on it.

The situation is reminiscent of a Woody Allen joke about two elderly women who are complaining about the restaurant where they are eating. “Boy, the food at this place is just terrible,” one says. “Yeah, I know,” the other replies. “And such small portions.”

The political reversals have been almost comical. Only days after the Italian government blocked a shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia on the grounds that it faced a domestic medical emergency, it suspended the use of the vaccine within Italy.

In the face of supply shortages, the French government first questioned the vaccine’s effectiveness, then approved it only for people aged under 65, then banned it on the grounds of safety, then approved it again only for people aged over 55. The supposedly philosophical French president, Emmanuel Macron, has sometimes sounded almost as laughably deranged in his anti-scientific rantings as former US president Donald Trump.

Biggest crisis to hit the continent since the Second World War

Except European politicians’ inept response to what is arguably the biggest crisis to hit the continent since the Second World War is no laughing matter. While vaccinated Israelis celebrate their regained freedom at post-pandemic parties, Europeans are dying in droves and again being confined to their homes.

While China’s economy continues to grow by leaps and bounds, European economies are stumbling along, with people’s livelihoods unnecessarily destroyed. And while in the United States the sober competence of President Joe Biden’s administration is slowly repairing the damage wrought by Trump’s reckless insouciance, Europe’s global standing is sinking to new lows. Even Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain is putting the EU to shame with its vaccination success.

For sure, some European countries have coped with the pandemic better than others. Economically, manufacturing powerhouses such as Sweden and Germany have experienced less severe slumps than tourist destinations such as Spain and Italy.

Healthwise, Finland has had far fewer Covid deaths per million residents than Belgium – thirteen times fewer, in fact. In terms of vaccinations, Malta had delivered six times more jabs per 100 people than Bulgaria by late March.

But by global standards, Europe as a whole is a miserable failure. While Europeans like to think that Europe is the epitome of global sophistication and progress, it is dealing with the pandemic much worse than its peers and rivals.

Whereas China and other East Asian countries successfully suppressed the virus last year, Europe has repeatedly failed to do so. While the West in general has fared much worse than the East, more Europeans than Americans have died of Covid; excluding micro states, Belgium has the second-highest Covid death rate in the world, after Czechia.

All EU countries lag behind the US, the UK and indeed Chile in their immunisation rates. And while the EU’s economic stimulus efforts have been unprecedented, they pale in comparison to the US’s.

Scarcely a decade after the 2008–09 financial meltdown and the ensuing crisis in the eurozone shredded Europe’s reputation for sound economic management and speeded its relative economic decline, the coronavirus pandemic is destroying its reputation for good governance and accelerating that economic plunge.

A catalogue of failures

The catalogue of failures is long. European governments were unduly complacent about Covid at the beginning of last year. Having failed to prevent the virus’s spread in Europe, they were then forced into economically devastating lockdowns to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed. Confinements were then eased before the virus had been fully suppressed.

Worse, over the summer months when infections were low, governments failed to develop effective mass testing and contact tracing systems that would have prevented a resurgence of cases. Further lockdowns ensued.

Now, in the face of a third wave that again threatens to overwhelm healthcare systems, governments are imposing painful new social and economic restrictions every week. And while the UK and the US are making up for their poor management of the pandemic by vaccinating their populations fast, EU governments are again failing their citizens.

The contrast with East Asia is instructive. While China was slow to react to the initial spread of the disease and then imposed a particularly severe lockdown, especially in Wuhan, it has since kept the virus suppressed, quickly stamping out subsequent local flare-ups.

South Korea quelled an initial upsurge of cases without an economy-wide lockdown through ruthlessly effective contract tracing and selective isolation. Taiwan also avoided a lockdown; its officials were monitoring arrivals from Wuhan even before the Chinese government had admitted it had a problem.

Both Korea and Taiwan have made good use of mobile-phone technology to suppress the virus. Even Vietnam, a poor country with a long porous border with China, has managed to keep a lid on Covid.

The difference in mortality figures is vast. By late March the EU had recorded some 600,000 deaths from Covid. In contrast, China had counted 4,636 deaths, South Korea 1,704, Vietnam 35 and Taiwan 10.

For sure, East Asia had more recent experience of dealing with a coronavirus pandemic, having suffered from SARS in 2002–04. But there was nothing to stop European governments learning the lessons from SARS too. And while it is perhaps excusable that they were overwhelmed by the initial exponential spread of Covid-19 in Europe last February and March, it is inexcusable that they haven’t used the time since then to develop suppression measures as effective as East Asia’s.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to be forced to lock down the economy once may be regarded as a misfortune; to do so twice or even three times looks like carelessness. So much for the supposed superiority of European governance.

The incompetence of European governments has not just led to painful restrictions on personal freedom along with many avoidable deaths. It is also hammering European economies.

The gap between East and West is glaring. While even Germany is facing the worst recession since the 1930s, China is the only major economy in the world that grew last year. Output per person has plunged in France but has scarcely fallen in South Korea.

While governments in the eurozone, the UK and the US are running up huge debts to try to cushion the blow of the Covid collapse, Taiwan’s scarcely needs to borrow at all. And that huge divide in economic performance is set to grow as the third wave sweeping through Europe this spring takes its toll.

The upshot is not just that Europeans are facing an unnecessarily long period of economic misery. It is that Europe’s weight in the world has plunged – again. When the financial crisis struck in 2008, the eurozone’s economy was more than three times bigger than China’s in euro terms. A decade later, China had overtaken the eurozone. Last year, China surpassed the EU as a whole.

Economic decline has wider repercussions

Relative economic decline has wider repercussions. The EU is a geopolitical pygmy. It lacks a cohesive foreign policy, let alone military might. So its power to defend Europeans’ interests both within Europe and elsewhere depends largely on its economic clout.

It is because the EU has a huge single market – worth €16.4 trillion in 2019 – for which it takes collective decisions on trade, regulation and competition policy that it can stand up to foreign bullying on trade, develop tough rules to protect the environment and data privacy that are emulated globally, and curb the monopolistic excesses of big tech companies. Thus if the EU single market’s global importance diminishes, so does the EU’s scope to shape the world.

As well as eroding Europe’s economic heft, the coronavirus crisis is undermining its cultural appeal. German cars and appliances are associated with high quality, Italian fashion with luxury, French food and wine with good taste.

More broadly, European societies seem to offer an enviable combination of freedom, security and quality of life. But now they are also associated with an unenviable mix of shambolic governance and draconian lockdowns, of creaking public healthcare systems, individual irresponsibility and unnecessary deaths. That tarnishes the European brand internationally in all sorts of ways.

Moreover, the EU’s claim to be the global standard-bearer for rules-based multilateral free trade has been trashed by its threats to impose unilateral, Trump-style vaccine export bans.

Last but not least, Europe’s failure to get to grips with the Covid pandemic casts aspersions on its political system. While liberal democracy has intrinsic appeal to many people – because it offers individuals greater freedom and citizens collectively greater power – it has also been popular because it was associated with economic success and good government.

Liberal democracy had already taken a battering from the financial crisis, which made governments seem both incompetent and corrupt. Now, European governments can’t even manage the basics of keeping people safe.

For sure, South Korea and Taiwan, both boisterous democracies, have successfully suppressed the virus. And yes, the pandemic exposed the bungling of illiberal populists such as Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. But it may also bolster the global appeal of effective authoritarian governance. Another reason why Beijing may benefit from the Covid failings of Brussels and Berlin – as well as those of Washington DC.

By Philippe Legrain