How coronavirus will test the European Union
Coronavirus is catching up with Europe.
For months, the Chinese epidemic seemed like something that could never happen here — neither the potential cause (contact with pangolins) nor the putative cure (an authoritarian anvil). For all the clichés about viruses not respecting borders, other scary diseases like Zika and Ebola have mostly stuck to the poor countries from which they came.
By contrast, the coronavirus crisis has started to look more like the European migration and financial crises: a symptom of globalization that can’t be held back where it started. The exploding outbreak around the Continent — officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday — highlights both the promises and limitations of the European Union: a single, largely borderless market made up of 27 countries, each with their own governments, electorates, bureaucracies, health care systems and, as has become painfully obvious, national interests.
For weeks, officials in Brussels and national capitals have called for pan-European coordination. Yet even as Italy, the bloc’s third largest economy, embraces a made-in-China solution — putting the entire country under preventative lockdown — the modus operandi across the EU remains fragmented and reactive.
That the virus has taken root in Europe is one of the few things we know for sure. The quality of the data about the epidemic is dreadful: Across the world, inconsistent testing means there’s little consensus on how many people actually have the virus or what proportion of its victims die — though it’s clearly worse for the elderly and those with other health problems.
The economic consequences are also uncertain, though — as Italy’s manufacturing and tourism powerhouse shuts down — it’s become clear they’re going to be devastating.
“The coronavirus has arrived in Germany,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday. “We must assume that 60 to 70 percent of the population will become infected.”
And yet leaders, including Merkel, have so far mostly chosen to wait and see rather than to try manage the outbreak in advance.
Take Agnès Buzyn, France’s erstwhile health minister. She initially said she was too busy dealing with coronavirus prep to run for a minor post in Paris’ local elections. But when the top spot became available after Benjamin Griveaux’s sexting scandal, suddenly the potential outbreak didn’t seem like such a priority.
Other countries have proven oblivious. Spanish officials didn’t even notice the country’s first COVID-19 death until three weeks after it had occurred: A man who died on February 13 was posthumously diagnosed on March 3. The Chinese community in Spain has been so alarmed by the government’s casual response that they’ve been organizing over WhatsApp to help people self-isolate for weeks.
“There are not enough controls, and there’s a lack of precision in the actions taken,” Lam Chuen, president of the Federation of Chinese Associations of Catalonia, told El Periódico. “Comparing what China has done with what Europe is doing, we are very worried because we don’t see responsibility.”
On Wednesday, the Spanish parliament suspended almost all activity after all 52 MPs from the far-right Vox party self-isolated over virus fears.
The European Commission has also appeared to be behind the curve. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen listed the creation of her coronavirus response team — a quintet of relevant commissioners — as an accomplishment on Day 93 of her First 100 Days agenda. But even as northern Italy entered lockdown over the weekend, von der Leyen stayed focused on a migration dispute and said the committee was meeting only weekly.
EU health ministers met twice over the past month in Brussels, proclaiming their intent to coordinate. But it wasn’t until their bosses met by videoconference on Tuesday that the political mandate for cooperation fell into place. The Commission said it’s now planning a daily phone call with health and interior ministers from around the EU.
Other signs suggest the dial hasn’t moved much on coordination. When France and Germany restricted external sales of face masks, other countries complained. Industry warned this could lead to shortages elsewhere.
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One big aim of the tele-summit was to prevent these potential shortages from becoming a reality. But less than a day after EU leaders agreed to share information about equipment stocks so that critical medical supplies can be moved around more easily, Romania announced that it, too, would ban exports of personal protective equipment, and Hungary complained that 120,000 face masks are held up at the port of Hamburg.
Finance ministers learned to mobilize quickly in response to the global recession and eurozone crisis, German Health Minister Jens Spahn told German radio Wednesday.
“Just as we learned that 10 years ago with finances, we now have to learn it with health — and quickly, because health is certainly a lot more important than finance, in my view,” said Spahn, himself a former finance ministry official.
Yet, in much of Europe, even as the threat from the virus became clear, authorities in many parts of the Continent have seemed to put financial considerations over health concerns.
“In France they had a gathering of Smurfs in Disneyland, and clubs in Paris were open up until two or three days ago,” said Giovanni Rezza, director of infectious diseases at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Italy’s national health institute. “In Germany everyone does what they want.” (Germany’s 16 regions have broad authority to make their own calls; so far only about half have adopted the federal health ministry’s advice to cancel events with more than 1,000 people.)
Italy’s deep sacrifices could be for nothing if “other European countries let the virus run free,” said Rezza, speaking on Radio Popolare Wednesday morning. “If Europe exists, [it should] manifest itself.”
In Italy, 65 percent support the government’s handling of the crisis, according to a poll published a day after the entire country was locked down — even though one prediction estimates that one in 10 Italian businesses won’t survive the outbreak if it lasts more than a year.
“The coronavirus crisis is a test of the EU’s cohesiveness and credibility — one that can only be passed through genuine, concrete solidarity,” wrote Maurizio Massari, the Italian ambassador to the EU, in an op-ed for POLITICO pleading for aid ranging from economic relief to face masks.
Europe has made some big changes in response to previous outbreaks. Its infectious disease agency, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, was created in 2005 after the SARS outbreak. The agency is in charge of assessing the risk of the coronavirus’ transmission and making recommendations for how to contain it. The COVID-19 crisis has prompted Spahn, usually no fan of giving power to Brussels, to urge more authority and resources for the ECDC.
Some have taken moves like Spahn’s as a sign that this crisis too will be followed by a push to centralize more authority over health in the EU’s institutions.
“Most of the work will have to be done afterward when we will really be able to draw the lessons,” said Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, an oncologist and first-term Renew Europe MEP from France. “We have Europe, but we need more, and better.”
By then, of course, the damage will already have been done.
David M. Herszenhorn, Paola Tamma, Cristina Gallardo, Lili Bayer, Judith Mischke, Andrew Gray, Jacopo Barigazzi and Carmen Paun contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the date on which the first Spanish death from the virus was confirmed.
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