A temporary hospital room.
Photo: Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg Via Getty Images. 
Vice World News

Inside Europe's Divided Response to Coronavirus

Experts say that after a slow start, European leaders found a way to work together.
21 July 2020, 9:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

On the 10th of March, as the coronavirus ripped ruinously through his country, the Italian ambassador to the EU, Maurizio Massari, published a furious op-ed aimed at the rest of Europe.

At the time, the Lombardy region in northern Italy was fast becoming the global epicentre of COVID-19. Death rates there were soaring to a trajectory which would soon hit the thousands. As the rest of the continent watched on still relatively unaffected, doctors described their desperation. It was like being on the front line of a war, they said.

Yet when Rome had attempted to activate an EU mechanism for emergency medical supplies, the request was met with silence. Not a single country in the union – indeed, in all of Europe – offered help. The only state which did was China.

Against this backdrop, Massari opened both barrels. "Unless we wake up," he wrote, "we run the risk of going down in history like the leaders in 1914 who sleepwalked into World War I."

Four months on, and with the first coronavirus wave now apparently receding, it seems clear Europe did not collapse into a crisis of quite such magnitude. Yet it is a widely accepted fact that the continent's devastation has gone far beyond what international analysts – and its own residents – would have expected. More than 180,000 people here have died. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared as economies contracted at a speed not even seen in the Great Depression. Damningly, the planet’s richest continent with its most sophisticated healthcare systems had to resort, in some areas, to field hospitals to treat its dying.

What went wrong? Was this, as an emerging consensus would have it, a collective failure of our democracies to act fast and together? Or, in fact, in the face of an overwhelming threat – one which Europe was uniquely vulnerable to – did the continent's actions save it from a far greater catastrophe?

It’s an obvious point but one worth reiterating: Europe’s experience of COVID-19 has not been uniform.

“What we have at the moment is still a snapshot of an ongoing pandemic,” says Dr. Simon Rushton, associate fellow with the Centre on Global Health Security at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and senior lecturer at Sheffield University. “But certainly, lots of countries in Europe have responded very effectively.”

Germany under Angela Merkel has been widely touted as one of the world’s standard bearers for managing the disease. A swathe of eastern nations – Croatia, Greece and Slovakia included – kept deaths to a minimum by locking down hard and early. So effective does the Czech Republic believe it has been in combating the contagion that, in Prague, they held a massive "farewell to coronavirus" street party – complete with people sharing food and not doing much in the way of social distancing.

Yet that the region as a whole has suffered, there is little doubt. Italy, Spain and France were all ravaged. Belgium has suffered horribly with the world’s highest death rate per population. Sweden’s catastrophic experiment in herd immunity has resulted in 20 times more people dying than in Norway next door. And then there is the UK: 45,000 people dead, the third highest total in the world, a populist government horribly out of its depth.

How did so many countries become such killing fields? “Governments were slow to act,” Dr. Rushton tells me. “If you want to be charitable you could say it’s easy to say that with hindsight but the warnings were there. Certainly, if you think of the UK and that weekend when Cheltenham Festival went ahead, there were already people saying it shouldn’t be happening.”

As confirmed cases were ticking exponentially up in March, major "super-spreader" events continued to take place. In Spain, with people already dying, some 120,000 people flooded into Madrid for an International Women’s Day march, while, in France, calls to delay local elections were ignored. The bakeries were still open, noted an aide to Emmanuel Macron’s, so why should the ballot boxes not be? The UK government was so reluctant to go into lockdown, it got beat to the punch by the Premier League; football bosses took the decision to cancel games even while prime minister Boris Johnson encouraged the matches to go on.

If the continental response was slow, it was also divided. Collectivity fell apart. As the virus spread, the EU’s most cherished principle – that of freedom of movement – was abandoned. Denmark and Slovenia were among those who shut their borders almost immediately. The block’s bigger states, Spain, France and Germany, soon followed. “As long as there is no European solution, one must act in the interests of one's own population," declared Horst Seehofer, interior minister of the latter, in an interview back in March. Worse still, was an initial refusal to share medical equipment.

When struggling Italy requested emergency help with PPE from other EU states, it was a call met with silence. Just days later, Germany and France announced they were banning exports of all such equipment – even to other EU members. They did so as the same horrible realisation started to grip the continent’s capitals: they did not own enough PPE for the hurricane ahead. “We realised… that there is a general shortage throughout Europe," Janez Lenarčič, European Commissioner for Crisis Management, told Politico in an April interview. “This was, I think, the crunch moment that there is a problem in Europe’s ability to face the challenge.”

The obvious question is how could a continent which prides itself on preparedness be so unprepared? Actually, for an entirely legitimate reason, says Keith Neal, emeritus professor in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Nottingham University. "The fact is we had an enormous amount of PPE provisioned for a long time," he says. "After the swine flu scare, there were stockpiles and, then, it has to be replaced because it goes out of date, and it was replaced, and then it went out of date again. So, what do you do? Do you keep spending money replacing PPE which never gets used or do you spend it on cancer treatments?”

Whether cash not spent on masks, aprons and gloves were invested in cancer care is perhaps a moot point (it seems unlikely), but the key takeaway remains the same: someone had to make a call on whether money should be repeatedly invested in equipment that never got used. That some countries had their supplies dwindle is clearly not ideal, but there is also clear mitigation.

By the same token, it is worth saying Europe was perhaps uniquely vulnerable to the infection in a way that would have been almost impossible to predict or prepare for. Its densely packed, globally connected cities, meanwhile, could have pretty much been designed to spread such a contagion. It is almost certainly no coincidence that cases surged in the fortnight after half term, when thousands of families were travelling.

"People talk about New Zealand doing well," says Neal. "But Jacinda Ardern was dealt the best hand in the world. She played it extremely well but when you have an Ace flush, you’re always going to win. Remote islands, lots of warning, a population of five million? We get more international passengers coming into Britain every single month than that. It’s not comparable.”

Crucially, too, Europe had no collective memory of any crisis like this. Unlike countries in South East Asia – notably South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – it was never hit hard by Sars or Swine Flu. Consequently, it did not learn the lessons of such epidemics – did not learn to fear them, perhaps, in the same way those countries did. "You can prepare for events [you have seen] in other parts of the world,” says Alex Faulkner, professor in sociology of biomedicine and healthcare policy. “But without first-hand experience, it can be difficult to instil that sense of emergency.”

To compound things was the response of the United States. While Europe is its own continent, in times of crisis, it has, for the best part of a century, looked across the Atlantic for support; indeed, for leadership. This time, it looked towards America in vain.

Within that context, then, you could argue Europe’s slow response to an unfolding crisis wasn’t what was extraordinary – but in fact, how quickly, after the paralysation of the initial shock, it started to act. Even on the same day Maurizio Massari wrote that scathing op-ed, EU leaders agreed to a unified response which prioritised getting medical supplies to areas most in need, and committed €7.5 billion to aid economic recovery. A week later, all internal EU borders were opened again. The European Commission apologised to Italy for the delay in help. Italian doctors – now over their own peak – were already sharing data and best practice anecdotes with colleagues around Europe.

This, moreover, was just the beginning.

Since then, some €3.5 trillion in fiscal stimulus packages have been announced in a bid to help the continent’s economies, while the European Commission has directed €40m into developing treatments and diagnostics. More money still has been pumped from EU coffers into 18 different research projects looking for a vaccine. A joint procurement scheme has been activated to boost supplies of both ventilators and PPE – for everyone.

On a technical level, meanwhile, the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has moved fast and nimbly, publishing data, spread information and medical guidelines, says Dr Rushton. “If you look at bodies like the ECDC, they have done stuff on surveillance, guidelines and monitoring, things on a technical level, that has been hugely useful,” he says. The sharing of information, he reckons, has given individual countries and health bodies the access to big data and specific information that has allowed them to quickly understand – and wrestle with – the virus.

Individual countries, too, have had their successes. Germany’s test and trace system is now being used as a model for countries around the world, while it was UK scientists working through exacting trials who discovered that a simple £5 drug, dexamethasone, cut the chance of dying from coronavirus by a third for patients already on ventilators.

Plans are already being drawn up across the continent for equitable distribution of any vaccine that is forthcoming – itself something which European countries are leading the charge on.

The conclusion? “The picture of the response [as a whole] is not as bleak as I think some people have painted it,” says Dr. Rushton.

Certainly, lessons must be learnt if a second wave is to come. Yet if the first reported drafts of history suggested that European democracies had failed – if those writing at the height of the pandemic looked round and saw only a fragmented and stunted response – perhaps future analysis will be kinder.

For in an unprecedented crisis, neither the EU or Europe disintegrated or sleepwalked into catastrophe. By locking down, sharing data, releasing stimulus packages and investing in research, governments here almost certainly saved lives – both during the first wave and in future waves to come.