COVID-19: The European Inferno

By André Francischetti Moreno

Hell, the first part of the Divine Comedy, portrays Dante´s journey through its nine circles. Today, the whole world appears to be going through such reality, and the conductor has no face but a name, COVID-19. Three weeks changed the course of history, according to Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. As of 13 March 2020, Europe was declared the new pandemic center of the disease that came about in Wuhan (China), only five days before all countries within Europe had a confirmed case of COVID-19. From the registered cases in Europe, which due to logistical reasons are massively underestimated, more than 77% are concentrated in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. In this text, I will shortly analyze the situation in each of these countries and conclude with a reflection on what we can do to mitigate the ongoing situation.   

On the 24th of January of 2020, the first European case of the new coronavirus was registered in Bordeaux. In a few weeks, the registered number of cases reached nearly all French departments, leading to the impactful declaration of president Macron on March 16, “We are at war”. The announcement involved a national lockdown for fifteen days and the closure of land borders. As of 26 March, over 29 thousand cases and 1.696 deaths were confirmed. To relieve hospitals in the heavily affected Eastern France, the government established adapted hospitals in high-speed trains, aiming to take mild patients to less impacted hospitals in the Western. Furthermore, president Macron announced the army operation “Resilience”, designed to support the population and assist the public health system. The plan entails deploying helicopter carriers equipped with hospitals on board to French territories in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, easing the shipping of medical supplies from one region to another, and support of law enforcement mainly in sensitive regions. 

Three days after the first case appeared in Southeastern France, Munich registered Germany’s first case. Since then, cases outnumbered 39.000 and deaths exceeded 220. German chancellor Angela Merkel took never-before-seen measures in the country’s post war period and declared a shutdown of many establishments and addressed the nation to stay indoors. Meanwhile, many states imposed drastic lockdown measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. The chancellor said that the expectation was that about 60-70% of the population would get infected. So far, Germany experienced a low death-rate to which contention measures such as the widespread testing to detect those infected and isolate them certainly contributed (so far more than 410.000 tests have been conducted across the country). A relevant factor, however, is that more than 77% of the infected are out of the risk-group. Moreover, Prof. Dr. Lothar H. Wieler, President of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, explained that this is only the beginning for Germany, as other countries are simply further in the progression curve of the pandemic. When it comes to the biggest European economy, Germany is planning to increase borrowing by as much as 150 billion euros this year, to avoid what the chief economist at ING Germany, Carsten Brzeski, characterized as an “inducive coma”.

In the last week of March, Spain overtook China in terms of mortal victims from COVID-19 with over 4 thousand deaths and 40 thousand infected, 5.400 of whom are health workers. As a recommendation of the Ministry of Health, the government established full lockdown and is enforcing it through up-to thirty thousand-euro fines and arrests of recurrent offenders. Meanwhile, Spain has asked NATO for urgent help with personal protective equipment and announced the incorporation of fast tests to detect the coronavirus. David Noguera, president of MSF Spain, said that their focus lies on establishing temporary hospitals, reducing infections and protecting the elderly and vulnerable. On 17 March, the government announced a 200-billion-euro package to back companies and protect workers and other groups affected.

Italy holds over 80.589 confirmed cases and 8.215 deaths, which is the highest mortality rate worldwide. In early March, prime minister Conte expanded the quarantine from Lombardy to all Italy, the first measure of its kind in Europe. Although Northern Italy has one of the best public health systems in the Western world, it is being pushed to a breaking point. Not only are beds and materials falling short, but several front-line health care professionals are continuously being contaminated. Intensive care units and field hospitals are being built, and experts from all over the world (mainly China) are helping the government. Some analysts point out the slow introduction of gradual and regional procedures instead of serious nationwide measures as a reason behind the quick spread of the novel coronavirus. As late as the 1st of March, when the epidemic clusters of Lombardy and Veneto were already well-known, only some municipalities had declared quarantine, while in the rest of the nation minor prevention measures were carried out. By now, Italy conducted over 360 thousand tests, issued a 25 billion euros aid plan, and drafted the military to enforce the lockdown.

It remains clear that the European Union is going through one of the greatest challenges of its existence. This is not only a humanitarian and economic crisis but also a social catastrophe when it comes to public safety. Quoting Jonathan Whittall (MSF Spain), “How are you supposed to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water or soap? How can you implement ‘social distancing’ if you live in a slum or a refugee camp? How are you supposed to stop crossing borders if you are fleeing from war? How are those with pre-existing health conditions going to take extra precautions if they already can’t afford or access the treatment they need?” Recalling Dante´s Hell, one can say that inequality has an enormous impact on defining who goes to the limbo (a place where souls do not cry, but sigh) and who is condemned to the circles of hell. Vulnerable groups tend to fall in the second category. Therefore, more than ever, it is important to spread a brotherhood and solidarity spirit. Those who can, should stay at home, help the elderly and vulnerable on doing groceries, buying medicines or hygiene materials, make company to each other, be conscious not to overbuy things and assist the authorities to find optimal and efficient solutions. Above all, one must always remember that after hell and purgatory, comes heaven. 

 

Photo by Fran Boloni on Unsplash

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