‘The coronavirus crisis is not just a national crisis. It’s a European crisis, and it needs to be treated as such.’ Maurizio Massari, Italian Permanent Representative to the European Union.[i]
Europe is amid a global pandemic, which is quickly transforming into a substantial challenge for the European Union. This is not striking at all. One reason is that EU institutions have had a long history of struggling to handle various crises, such as the Eurozone crisis and the Migrant crisis, two of its most severe downturns. The Coronavirus crisis is on its way to becoming another impactful disruption to the basic principles that bind the Union. We are witnessing a medical and humanitarian crisis rapidly morphing into an economic and diplomatic one, which could potentially give fertile ground to concerning trends such as distrust in the EU, nationalism and far-right populism. These are proving to be once again critical times in which decisive and coordinated action and initiative are needed from EU institutions and leaders, to show readiness and responsibility. Rather, the EU is showing a lack of decisiveness, delayed initiative and struggle to fight and properly address the pandemic.
On December 21st 2019, Chinese authorities alerted the WHO of the first cases of an unknown virus. On January 11th 2020, China announced its first death.[ii] The severity of the virus and its spread were evident from the beginning. The number of coronavirus patients rose rapidly, especially considering the strongly interconnected and globalized world we live in, this was expected to happen. On January 20th China adopted what it calls Class A control measures, which are typically adopted when dealing with outbreaks of plague or cholera.[iii] At the time the WHO was still reluctant to declare the virus a global pandemic. However, ten days later, the organisation, under the pressure of the rapid spread of the disease, officially declared the new virus (2019-nCov/COVID-19) ‘a global emergency’, which required a ‘coordinated international response’.[iv]
At the time, the EU was probably still expecting that the virus would not hit European countries as hard as it did China and that it would largely remain within the borders of Wuhan. Therefore, the first measures adopted were mostly on a small coordination and communication level – such as the Early Warnings and Response System (to share valuable information), funding research, etc. Contrary to their lack of concern, however, the disease turned into a nightmare for the European Union and its member states and highlighted several crucial problems.
Italy was one of the countries that suffered the most and seemed to bear the severity of the virus on behalf of the EU. This was a wake-up call for the lack of coordinated EU level measures and solidarity. From its first case on 21st February in Lombardy region,[v] positive cases of COVID-19 rose dramatically to 42 681 with 4 825 deaths in March.[vi] Italy was already gasping by the time the EU took its first measures to answer the upcoming humanitarian crisis. News agencies were reporting on this approaching medical emergency, with information on shortages of medical equipment, such as masks and ventilators and hospital beds.[vii] Medical staff and hospitals in Italy were facing severe physical and mental strain attempting to aid all diseased. However, due to the highly insufficient equipment, doctors were brought to the point of being instructed that medical services should be allocated to patients with the highest chance of survival.[viii] We were witnessing a disaster in the making.
The European Union and its member states were not prepared for a medical and humanitarian crisis of such proportions. EU institutions failed to quickly and effectively establish a proper disaster-response plan or strategy, especially one that included coordinated EU level measures. The European Union adopted its first measure targeting the lack of medical supplies on 19th March 2020, when cases in the European Region were topping 87 000.[ix] It created the first in the history of the EU (rescEU) stockpile of medical equipment, which would be hosted by countries of the EU, for which the EU allocated a 50 million euro budget.[x] However, EU countries would be responsible for procuring the equipment on their own and remunerated afterwards. The first country to volunteer was Romania.[xi] However, there is no information that any medical equipment has been delivered or distributed so far.
While the EU was struggling to create a common response and ensure distribution of sufficient medical equipment,[xii] member states were receiving the much-needed help from outside the EU, but at what cost? Italy received help from China in the form of medical experts and valuable equipment, such as 10 000 ventilators (compared to the 150 from the rescEU stockpile) and 2 million face masks.[xiii] China also sent medical packages to a number of other countries such as Netherlands, Slovakia, Serbia and Spain, some of which have reported that the equipment sent was faulty.[xiv] The same response was received when Russia sent a significant amount of medical aid supplies to Italy.[xv] As a result, there have been rising question whether these countries are offering simply a helping hand or there are bigger political and diplomatic issues at play?
As the crisis is entering its peak, we are seeing even more examples of the failed EU response. Due to the lack of an EU-wide strategy for controlling the virus, member states have each declared their own measures. Some countries have implemented strict lockdown and social distancing measures at the earliest possible stages, which seemed most appropriate. Others, such as the UK, turned to the so-called ‘herd immunity’, which was largely debated, as it would have unknown repercussions.[xvi] This measure was later adopted by the Netherland and Sweden. Herd immunity is said to allow for the majority of a nation’s population to be infected to create widespread immunity. While it remains unknown whether this is the most appropriate measure and how exactly the coronavirus crisis will unfold, divergent measures continue to be adopted. COVID cases are rising rapidly in countries such as the United States and Russia, while China itself might be experiencing another wave.[xvii] At the same time, many European countries are easing lockdown measures allowing for non-essential businesses, industries or schools to reopen, which have been met with a warning from the World Health Organisation.[xviii]
On 15th April the president of the EU Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, announced a roadmap towards lifting the COVID-19 containment measures, in an attempt to devise an EU-level coordinated strategy for member states. The Commission recommends three sets of criteria – a sustained reduction in new infections, sufficient health system capacity and large-scale testing capacity.[xix] However, there are is no clear criteria of what sustained means and whether this reduction is based on daily cases or the overall number of cases? This creates confusion when determining whether a country can lift measures safely, even though it may be exhibiting a decrease in daily cases for a period of a few days. It remains to be seen how this roadmap will be implemented across member states, especially considering some states are already slowly lifting measures despite a rise in overall cases.[xx]
The European Union has survived many crises and it will undoubtedly survive the spread and economic repercussions of COVID-19. Nevertheless, it is much more concerning what effect this will bring upon the citizens of the EU. The large number of deaths due to the virus, the strain on hospitals and medical staff, the lack of equipment, the widening panic and worry might lead to another crisis of legitimacy and trust in the EU. There is a great possibility that the lack of effective EU response may arise more scepticism and distrust among EU citizens while increasing trust in their own governments. This is one of its many crises where the EU has demonstrated that it fails to establish timely and effective responses, it fails to manage and motivate member states to act together in the face of a common threat to the safety of the citizens of the EU. And although we are increasingly seeing more action from the EU, albeit delayed, the more existential question remains – Will this be another lesson learned or a source of a major shift in thinking and a harvested opportunity for progress?
[i] Maurizio Massari, “Italian ambassador to the EU: Italy needs Europe’s help,” March 10, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-italy-needs-europe-help/
[ii] Aljazeera, “Timeline: How the new coronavirus spread,” April 28, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/timeline-china-coronavirus-spread-200126061554884.html
[iii] Aljazeera, “Timeline.”
[iv] Jing Zhang, “Coronavirus spread now a global emergency declares World Health Organization,” United Nations News, January 30, 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/01/1056372
[v] Angela Giuffrida, “Coronavirus Italy: Lombardy province at centre of outbreak offers glimmer of hope,” The Guardian, April 8, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/08/coronavirus-italy-lombardy-province-at-centre-of-outbreak-offers-glimmer-of-hope
[vi] Civil Protection Department Headquarters Italy, “Coronavirus: 42.681 positive cases,” March 21, 2020, http://www.protezionecivile.gov.it/web/guest/media-communication/press-release/-/content-view/view/1234662
[vii] Lorenzo Tondo, “Italian hospitals short of beds as coronavirus death toll jumps”, The Guardian, March 9, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/09/italian-hospitals-short-beds-coronavirus-death-toll-jumps
[viii] Yascha Mounk, “The Extraordinary Decisions Facing Italian Doctors”, The Atlantic, March 11, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/who-gets-hospital-bed/607807/
[ix] World Health Organisation, “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Situation Report –59.” March 19, 2020, https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200319-sitrep-59-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=c3dcdef9_2
[x] European Commission, “COVID-19: Commission creates first ever rescEU stockpile of medical equipment,” March 19, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_476
[xi] Romania Insider, “Romania to host EU stockpile of medical equipment,” April 7, 2020, https://www.romania-insider.com/ro-eu-stockpile-ventilators
[xii] Claire Anderson, “EU coronavirus crisis: Trucks with vital supplies stuck in traffic jams, warns EU chief,” Express, March 21, 2020, https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1258431/coronavirus-europe-latest-von-der-leyen-covid-19-border-control-traffic-jams
[xiii] Jonny Wood, “China is sending medical experts and supplies to help Italy fight coronavirus,” World Economic Forum, March 16, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/coronavirus-covid-19-italy-china-supplies/
[xiv] Aljazeera, “Why China's support to coronavirus-hit Europe stirs controversy,” April 6, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/china-support-coronavirus-hit-europe-stirs-controversy-200404160742616.html
[xv] Henry Foy and Michael Peel, “Russia sends Italy coronavirus aid to underline historic ties,” Financial Times, March 23, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/b1c5681e-6cf9-11ea-89df-41bea055720b
[xvi] David Conn and Paul Lewis, “Documents contradict UK government stance on Covid-19 'herd immunity' “, The Guardian, April 12, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/12/documents-contradict-uk-government-stance-on-covid-19-herd-immunity
[xvii] Audrey Cher, “Countries risk second wave of coronavirus infections by easing restrictions too early, says expert,” CNBC, April 14, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/14/countries-risk-second-wave-of-coronavirus-infections-by-easing-restrictions-too-early-says-expert.html
[xviii] Aljazeera, “WHO warns against easing restrictions as deaths top 100,000,” April 10, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/warns-easing-restrictions-deaths-top-100000-200410180554853.html
[xix] European Commmission, “A European roadmap to lifting coronavirus containment measures,” April 15, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication_-_a_european_roadmap_to_lifting_coronavirus_containment_measures_0.pdf
[xx] Reuters, “Factbox: Europe begins easing coronavirus lockdowns,” April 17, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-europe-factbox/factbox-europe-begins-easing-coronavirus-lockdowns-idUSKBN21Z1P0