Virus takes a firm hold of Europe
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has taken Europe in its grip with a vengeance. The much-feared second wave of the pandemic has arrived across the continent, sooner and more fervently than expected. Governments in the Northern Hemisphere have been dreading the colder winter months and the likelihood of the virus’ effects combining with the flu, another respiratory disease, but nothing could have prepared them for this.
Last weekend’s mood was reminiscent of that fatal weekend in mid-March, when country after country went into lockdown and borders closed one by one. European governments are trying to do whatever they can to avoid a repeat of the outright lockdowns seen in March. However, the measures required to respond to the case numbers spiraling out of control are drastic nonetheless.
What governments fear is that, as case numbers rise, the virus will again spread to vulnerable groups and that hospitals’ intensive care units will either not have enough beds or enough staff, or both, to cater for all the patients requiring treatment. Who could forget the scenes in Italy in the spring, when emergency room staff had to carry out the gruesome triage, deciding whose life should be saved?
In France, Paris and some other cities now have a 9 p.m. curfew, while Italy and Germany have also tightened restrictions. The situation in Germany is very difficult because the country’s federal structure makes for a hotchpotch of measures that differ from state to state and even district to district. Belgium, which has one of the highest numbers of new cases per capita in the world, has introduced particularly draconian measures.
Even the freedom-loving Swiss are now obliged by law to wear masks in all indoor public places, while 15 people is the maximum number allowed for public gatherings — inside and outside. Demonstrations are still allowed, provided they adhere to social distancing rules. People attending private gatherings of more than 15 people must wear masks, prompting the concern of how Swiss police can monitor that. In the Netherlands, the royal family had to be flown back from their holiday in Greece after just one day amid a government travel advisory to stay put. A very contrite Prime Minister Mark Rutte took full responsibility for that PR flop.
In the UK, Wales will go into full lockdown on Friday as Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a Mexican standoff on two fronts: Internationally with the EU on Brexit and domestically with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham on how much the government has to pay if the city is to abide by the draconian restrictions imposed by Westminster. London is under tougher restrictions too.
Across Europe, government deficits have been growing because of the necessary COVID-19 support measures like furlough schemes and direct subsidies. According to the Financial Times, deficits in euro zone countries are approaching €1 trillion ($1.1 trillion), or 8.9 percent of the euro zone’s combined gross domestic product.
Many travelers face a quagmire of ever-changing quarantine rules, making cross-border air travel unpredictable, if not impossible.
All of the above raises many questions. What measures are commensurate with the threat? How will freedom-loving Europeans react to the renewed restrictions placed on their lives? How much more can the continent’s economies take, especially the hard-hit hospitality sector and airlines? For how long will the various furlough programs and small business credit lines be extended? What to do about people who fall through the cracks, like artists or the self-employed? This is a particularly pertinent question because, in Europe, the gig economy has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. How much financial wiggle room have governments left to expand programs, who will pay down the ballooning deficits, and over what time frame? Are we mortgaging the future of our children?
All of these topics were discussed in the press and on television talk shows across Europe. Virologists discussed the merits of the Swedish model, the Great Barrington Declaration (a proposed system resembling an attempt to create herd immunity), the New Zealand model of isolation and lockdowns, and the many frameworks between these extremes.
What broadly transpired were the following four points.
While most citizens understand the need to comply with government restrictions, there are others who refuse.
Firstly, people are tired and scared for their livelihoods. While they endured the lockdown in spring, they thought that, if they could just get over this hump, life would return to normal. Alas, it did not. While most citizens understand the need to comply with government restrictions, there are others who refuse. In London, thousands took to the streets on Saturday demanding an end to restrictions, chanting that they were the 99 percent (which they were not).
Secondly, while governments and most opposition parties, other than the far-right populists, broadly agreed on the measures in the spring, this is no longer the case. Painting things with a broad brush, the more right-wing, pro-business politicians question the necessity of the lockdowns out of fear for what the new measures mean for the economy. The center-left (social democrats, greens, etc.), meanwhile, puts public health concerns above the economic imperative.
Thirdly, many populist parties, such as Alternative for Germany and France’s National Rally, were caught on the back foot by the virus. Ever since the pandemic spread to Europe, their pet peeve of immigration has mattered far less than the danger posed by the virus. They have found it difficult to adjust.
Fourthly, and importantly, there is awareness that the virus will be with us for some time to come, making our lives anywhere from more difficult to outright impossible; and that there is nowhere to hide. It would be remiss not to sound a small warning over vaccines. They will become available, but it may take longer than we thought. Even when we have vaccines or antiviral drugs, we need to produce them at scale, ship them in refrigerated containers, which poses its own set of challenges, and ensure all people and all nations have access — not just the rich. Expect that to be a bumpy ride.
In the meantime, we should all take care of our families, neighbors and especially the weak, whether they are in a high-risk health group or are poor. We must make sure that nobody falls through the cracks. History will judge us on these parameters.
- Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources