It was about a year ago when the first cases of infection with the coronavirus reached the European continent from China. Not even in their worst nightmares could European leaders have projected that this virus of Chinese origin would tear through their countries and cause the highest death rates since World War II. But the virus ripped through the continent in an unprecedented manner, and there is still no end in sight.
What exacerbated the situation in Europe was the fact that the great economic powerhouses of the continent were among the worst affected by the pandemic, including Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain. Each of these countries was badly hit, and each saw several million of their citizens contract the disease. In fact, these five countries have been among the top 10 most-affected in the world, exacerbating an already dire economic situation in Europe.
INFERNAL LOCKDOWNS IN BRITAIN: The UK has been the worst-affected European country by the coronavirus, with nearly four million infected people and over 116,000 deaths by 13 February this year.
The UK has been in the eye of the storm of the coronavirus pandemic from its early days, and it has been having very negative impacts on its economic performance. The country’s leaving the European Union in the so-called Brexit has added to its economic burdens, and it has seen the biggest contraction of its GDP in more than three centuries, according to official estimates. British GDP shrank by a record nine per cent in 2020, associated with a skyrocketing number of bankruptcies, before it grew again by four per cent.
These horrific numbers were not eased by the restrictions introduced by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which aimed to rectify his complacent attitude in the early days of the outbreak, along with the ludicrous suggestion that the virus should be let to take its course in the UK in order to build up “herd immunity” among its citizens. That suggestion was one of the early blunders that led to the current situation.
However, there is now some good news coming from Britain, in the shape of government figures showing that it has now successfully vaccinated 13 million people against Covid-19, which is a sign that the government is again taking control of the situation. At the moment, the UK is experiencing its third lockdown aiming to halt the spread of Covid-19 in the course of just one year.
The third lockdown was expedited by the discovery of a mutated form of the virus spreading in Britain. According to some medical experts, the appearance of the new mutation may undermine the vaccines now being used to contain the spread and protect people against the virus.
Added to the above is the fact that the British public has been growing restless because of the continued lockdowns that have taken the British economy by storm. A large part of the British public is not prepared to entertain the thought of an indefinite lockdown until there is an effective vaccine or cure for the virus and its various mutations.
This is a situation that Johnson cannot do much about apart from introducing safety measures for those who decide to resume their activities after the lifting of the lockdown.
UNPRECEDENTED RIOTS IN HOLLAND: The situation is not much better in some other European countries, including Holland.
Holland, normally one of the most peaceful European countries, has seen a wave of rioting and clashes between protesters calling for the lifting of the lockdowns and the security forces. It has been described as the worst wave of violence in the country for over four decades.
The riots spread from one city to another like wildfire, and they were not concentrated in Amsterdam, but instead moved to Eindhoven, The Hague, Rotterdam and major cities across the country. The unprecedented wave of violence was organised through social media by mostly young protesters. It did not take long for what were originally protests to turn into major riots, with shops looted and cars burned in several areas.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte initially followed the Johnson modus operandi of resisting the mandatory wearing of masks or the introduction of rigid health measures in the country in the early days of the outbreak. The results of that complacency were the infection of over one million Dutch citizens with Covid-19 and the deaths of over 14,000. Since Holland’s population is about 17 million, these numbers are alarming. They forced Rutte to take measures such as the closing of businesses and schools and the introduction of lockdowns.
The Dutch government resigned in January over its response to a child welfare benefits scandal, and Rutte is now serving as prime minister of a caretaker government until the election of a new one. The situation remains unstable, as the public is growing restless and more and more wary of government actions.
UNENDING POLITICAL CRISIS IN ITALY: In Italy, the situation has not improved much over what it was a year ago.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by the virus, and the initial response from the government of former prime minister Giuseppe Conti was not adequate to stop the outbreak. Italy has seen nearly 2.7 million infections and over 93,000 deaths from the virus, and the economic recession aggravated by the pandemic did not help the former Conti government.
A split over how to spend 209 billion Euros of emergency EU funding led to the fall of the 66th Italian government since World War II. Mario Draghi became Italy’s new prime minister on 12 February, and now he will have an uphill battle in kick-starting the ailing economy, controlling the virus outbreak and regaining the lost confidence of the Italian public in its politicians.
Many Italians are now struggling to provide basic needs for their families, and these include food as children are going hungry as a result of people not working for months in some cases as a result of the lockdowns in the country. Those who work for daily wages are doomed in this kind of situation, and bankruptcies and a lack of cash in the hands of many are growing problems.
Meanwhile, Germany and other European countries under lockdowns have been facing a similar fate, with shops, bars, restaurants, hairdressers and all sorts of businesses that rely on a daily influx of clients being closed.
As a result of this, Europe is now suffering its worst winter since World War II, and there is little to stop the anger and despair felt by its citizens aside from occasional news of vaccines against Covid-19 arriving to save the day.
As much as the lockdowns seem to be ideal precautionary measures to some politicians, many European citizens believe that they are slowly killing them, ending their lives as they know them.
For many desperate European citizens, the lockdowns will not matter much if they have no businesses or jobs to go back to after they are lifted thanks to the massive waves of bankruptcies in Europe. For the first time in many years, it is becoming hard to be a European citizen, though, in fairness, it has also been hard to be a European leader in these trying times with the fate of millions relying on your decisions.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly