Countries across the world are seeking to halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus and to reopen from lockdown to prevent devastating impacts on their economies. But balancing the need to keep populations safe while avoiding a second wave of infections and stopping an unprecedented economic recession will be a difficult task.
Various European countries started to ease the lockdowns introduced to slow the spread of the coronavirus last week, even as the death rate per day remains in the hundreds in countries such as Germany, Spain and Italy.
On Monday, Germany followed other European nations in a tentative easing of a lockdown imposed nearly a month ago by reopening bookshops, florists, fashion stores and bike and car outlets. Only students sitting exams will be allowed to go back to school for the moment.
For most German businesses, the lockdown will remain in place until at least 3 May, which means hotels, restaurants and cafes will remain shut, as will sports and leisure facilities.
There are also regional differences in how Germany’s 16 states are executing the partial relaxation of the lockdown. The densely populated state of North Rhine-Westphalia has reopened large and small shops, but elsewhere only those with an area of less than 800 square metres can start operating again.
In Saxony, it is mandatory for people to wear face masks in public, but this is only recommended elsewhere. Despite Germany’s mortality rate from Covid-19 being significantly lower than for many of its European neighbours, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has advised her Christian Democrat (CDU) colleagues to refrain from discussing any further relaxation of the lockdown as she fears it could undermine social distancing and fuel a new surge in cases.
Norway also reopened nursery schools on Monday, on condition that children take packed lunches, leave toys at home and scrupulously use hand-washing facilities. The authorities said that the easing of the lockdown was possible because children were less affected by Covid-19 than adults. “Going to pre-school is safe,” Norwegian Education Minister Guri Melby declared.
The partial reopening of Germany and Norway comes days after other European countries did the same. Italy announced the reopening of bookshops, laundries, stationers and children’s clothes stores in some regions last week. The full lockdown is set to end on 4 May, but it might be extended.
Spain allowed some factories and construction workers to go back to work last week, and a ban on children leaving their homes has been lifted so they can get fresh air. But most shops and services remain closed, and office staff are still working from home. The lockdown is set to end on 27 April but is likely to be extended
Austria reopened garden centres, DIY stores and small shops last week, but with strict rules on social distancing. Denmark also reopened kindergartens and primary schools last week. A range of small businesses, including hairdressers and beauty salons, are also reopening.
Poland is allowing people to visit parks and forests. The Czech Republic is reopening some shops and open-air markets, but Czech President Milos Zeman said the country’s borders would remain closed for the rest of 2020.
However, not every EU country is comfortable with reopening the economy while the death rates are still high and there is no immediate prospect of therapeutic drugs or vaccines. French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that France’s strict lockdown will be extended until 11 May, after which creches and primary and secondary schools will be able to reopen.
Belgium will also stay under lockdown until early May, with care-home deaths still a huge concern. Garden centres and hardware shops have been permitted to reopen under the same conditions as essential food stores. Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands and Portugal will all observe strict lockdowns until further notice.
Despite the different speeds and variety of economic activities that the European countries are taking to ease the lockdowns, there is now greater European cooperation in facing the coronavirus.
The European Commission has urged EU states to develop a uniform exit strategy that is “well-coordinated between the member states to avoid negative spill-over effects,” arguing that any failure to do so could result in new spikes of the epidemic through a second or even third wave of infections.
Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said the EU was working with industry to boost production, keep protective equipment in the EU, and share it among the EU countries. The EU countries have already agreed to ban the export of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) outside the bloc unless member states give explicit approval, Von der Leyen said on Sunday.
“National bans on selling protective equipment to other member states are not good,” von der Leyen said. “We need to help each other [within the EU bloc]. Today it is Italy that rapidly needs large quantities of medical goods, but in a few weeks other countries will need them too.”
EU finance ministers agreed a €500 billion rescue package for European countries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The main component of the rescue plan involves the European Stability Mechanism, the EU’s bailout fund, which will make €240 billion available to guarantee spending by indebted countries.
The EU ministers also agreed other measures including €200 billion in guarantees from the European Investment Bank and a European Commission project for national short-time working schemes.
But the package is smaller than the European Central Bank (ECB) had urged. The ECB had said the bloc might need up to €1.5 trillion to tackle the crisis, and it also falls short of France and Italy’s demand to share the costs of the crisis by issuing so-called “corona bonds”.
Despite the good intentions, the implementation of the rescue package has revealed serious flaws in European mechanisms, as EU rules for regional aid mean that Hungary has received more than double the amount of money than Italy, which is the worst-hit country by the coronavirus in Europe.
Italy received €2.3 billion from the €37 billion Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, but Hungary, which has a sixth of the population, got €5.6 billion. An estimated 172 people have died from the virus in Hungary, compared to a staggering 23,660 in Italy. Meanwhile, Spain, which has suffered more than 20,000 deaths and over 200,000 recorded cases, received €4 billion, €1.6 billion less than Hungary.
Gerald Knaus, chair of the European Stability Initiative, called for the processes behind the distribution of EU funds to be overhauled. “If this doesn’t lead to a wake-up call, then the EU is suicidal,” he warned. A statement by his think-tank went further by insisting that the EU should attach “good-behaviour” clauses to cash distributions.
“EU members who care about both solidarity and the rule of law must find ways to avoid a repetition of the Hungarian tragedy,” it said. “The logic of future European assistance must change; otherwise EU funds risk strengthening the very political forces bent on undermining the EU itself.”
Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, has been accused of exploiting the pandemic to give himself sweeping new powers. His country will benefit the most from the EU windfall, despite Brussels’s long-standing concerns over respect for the rule of law and democracy in Hungary.
“Europeans now need to find better ways to defend the values enshrined in their treaties, not with pious words and empty threats, but in the language of power and money that politicians like Orban will understand,” Knaus said.
The coronavirus pandemic has already exposed deep divisions in the EU, where Italy and Spain have accused northern nations led by Germany and the Netherlands of not doing enough at the beginning of the crisis. However, after a painfully slow start, the collective fight against the coronavirus now seems to be at full swing in the EU.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly