European Union (EU) state leaders pledged Thursday to counter the new coronavirus with the best available scientific advice. But after weeks of resistance to expert advice, they are just following suit.
Faced with dramatic increases in cases of COVID-19 contamination and deaths, European states are gradually returning to restrictions. But their answers now differ greatly from those taken in the spring. Or the dilemma remains topical: following the advice of health experts and saving lives vs. keeping the economy running. Thus, policy makers are reluctant to take harsh action. In fact, I want to reassure economic actors that a new blockade like the one in March and April is out of the question. European economies simply cannot afford a month or two of deadlock. Against this background, a certain state of tension between political leaders and health authorities is beginning to emerge.
Economic and absurd reasons
In the spring, European states took tough measures to combat the new coronavirus, but raised them at the first signs of economic and social problems. Schools have reopened and most economic activities have resumed. During all this time, the coronavirus did not go away on its own, it even became a major headache for the medical system, returning in force even in countries that thought they were victorious in front of it, such as Portugal and Montenegro.
In addition to economic and social pressures, the absurd has also made its place among politicians’ decisions. For example, despite the increased risk of exposure to infection, European Council President Charles Michel insisted that EU leaders meet physically in Brussels. This was the case, and Thursday and Friday’s summit was not without worrying news. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin were forced to delegate their tasks and isolate themselves after learning that they had come into contact with people tested positive for COVID-19. Moreover, on the day the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, self-isolated due to the coronavirus, the EU legislative forum announced that he was returning to Strasbourg. The return has been postponed in the meantime.
Despair among health experts
Given these considerations, some scientists simply say they are horrified by the passivity of political leaders. Or the estimates showed a worsening of the situation with the cooling of the weather and the return of social life inside.
In Europe, health experts have predicted a second wave and warned that the virus will continue to pose a serious threat at least until a vaccine appears, for which we should wait a few months, if not longer.
“It simply came to our notice then. It’s like we all have a memory loss about what happened six months ago, “Debby Bogaert, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, told Politico.
And yet, some governments have deliberately chosen not to implement the experts’ recommendations. In the Netherlands, the government’s team of experts complained late last month that policymakers had rejected a minor proposal on health masks. In Ireland, experts have called for tough action earlier this month, but the government has decided to keep bars and shops open and has blamed them for not realizing the economic consequences of their advice.
But Debby Bogaert deplores the fact that politicians are moving at “their own speed”, a very slow one. “Wait, wait and wait, while people in the field of public health know that you have to act now, not in a week or next month,” says the teacher.
Summer is over
After the spring blockade, many countries have encouraged summer travel to recover from financial losses. In May, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described the resumption of tourism as an “epilogue” to the blockade.
But not all politicians were thinking about the sea and the sun. In July, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides called on member countries to use the summer to prepare for a second wave in the autumn, pushing for more tests, follow-up and isolation of outbreaks. After a short period of decline, the number of SARS-CoV-2 contaminations began to rise again in the summer, exploding in September across almost all of Europe. On September 24, Kyriakides resumed its call. “We cannot let our guard down. We are at a decisive moment and everyone must act decisively “, insisted the European Commissioner.
Its challenge is appropriate: the EU has no body for coordinating health policy, and national governments are reluctant to the Brussels recommendations. On 4 September, for example, the European Commission proposed stepping up coordination between EU countries on travel restrictions. EU leaders delayed approval of the plan for five weeks and only signed it after removing provisions for people from high-risk areas.
In the face of a growing wave of infections and growing unrest in the health sector, political leaders have finally given way.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced last Wednesday the quarantine of nine cities, the decision coming almost a week after a record of more than 26,000 infections in a single day. By comparison, in March, the French government asked everyone to stay home since they faced only 1,000 cases a day.
Belgium has tried a mix of measures since August, but kept the bars open at night. Only a few weeks ago, as the hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients and the whole country was declared a red zone, the authorities began to tighten the measures.
Germany also resumed some anti-coronavirus measures last Wednesday, at the end of an eight-hour marathon session. “It is better to be in front of the wave, not to run after it,” said Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder, seen as Angela Merkel’s successor to the German government. However, Merkel described the new restrictions as “insufficient to avoid a disaster”.
There are scientific explanations for the increase in COVID-19 cases in Europe. First, the number of tests has increased significantly. Second, the virus increasingly infects young people, who usually do not have severe forms, but can also transmit it to people with health problems. Some experts are already warning us to expect an increase in the mortality rate.