#StayHome: the Pan-European Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic
With the tragic news that Italy has surpassed China with the most deaths caused by SARS-CoV-2 (the “novel coronavirus”), Europe has officially become the new epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic that began over 8,600 kilometres away from Brussels just a few months ago.
The European Union’s absence from pandemic response efforts speaks to the fragility of European solidarity in the face of crisis. Ursula von der Leyen has not been at the forefront of official discourse, other than to admit that European leaders “underestimated” the threat and to solicit help from Beijing. The foundational principles of the single market and free movement, for their part, went out the window in the face of the virus. France and Germany at least temporarily banned medical supply exports, while Austria and the Czech Republic banned travellers from Italy.
The irony of this breakdown in continental collaboration is that both governments and individual citizens have all been opting for the same course of action. Italy has set a standard for nationwide confinement that both Spain and France have adopted with only small changes, and which Germany may soon emulate as well. Europeans in all of these countries, in the meantime, have reacted in uniform fashion: preparing for weeks of isolation by stocking up on pasta, toilet paper, and bottled water.
Stocking up for survival
Officials in countries including France and Germany have tried to dissuade “panic buying” of the sort that has made headlines outside of Europe, insisting that grocery stores would remain open and provisioned despite the lockdown. And yet, shoppers from Paris to Berlin have cleared the shelves of “every conceivable shape of pasta.” In France, pasta sales have skyrocketed 114% in the span of just one week, as have those of plastic gloves and toilet paper.
Bottled water has emerged as one of the other hot-ticket items of Europe’s pandemic buying. Here again, officials in major municipalities such as Paris have been at pains to reassure the public that their tap water is safe to drink and to refute any possibility of an interruption in service.
Questions regarding the potential link between tap water and transmission of the coronavirus had been raised by past outbreaks of related viruses (such as SARS), which found faulty sewage piping responsible for the spread of that virus within residential units. Researchers at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention have found that SARS-CoV-2 could be transmitted through stool as well.
While the tap water in major cities such as Paris is extensively treated and closely monitored to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria, the bottled mineral water purchased in bulk could turn out to have other health benefits for the hundreds of millions of Europeans now confined at home. Among them: significant doses of critical minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Exposing Europe’s sorry state of preparedness
While shoppers across Europe rush to grocery stores and national governments struggle to keep citizens inside their houses, the European institutions are looking for ways to re-establish their own relevance in the broader response.
One of the starkest examples of the EU’s shortcomings in the time of coronavirus has been the failure of the civil protection mechanism to help pandemic-stricken countries like Italy overcome shortfalls in critical equipment such as masks and ventilators. This has left the bloc in the position of “airlifting” medical supplies from non-EU countries like China.
Commissioner Thierry Breton, responsible for the internal market, has also exhorted member states not to disrupt the internal movement of goods by blocking exports of medical equipment to other member states. That, of course, was the course of action both France and Germany opted for before Breton’s direct intercession with them.
To ensure the EU is better ensured to handle both this and future pandemics, the Commission has ultimately opted for a solution many European citizens are now intimately familiar with: stockpiling. Commissioner Janez Lenarcic, who oversees the EU’s crisis management mechanisms, has announced the creation of a strategic reserve of medical equipment (including masks and ventilators) with an initial budget of €50 million. While the purchases to fill this stockpile will mostly be financed by the EU, individual member states will need to volunteer to place orders and then store the equipment on their own territory.
A make-or-break moment for Brussels
Intervening to have export bans lifted and laying the foundations for an EU-wide stockpile are small steps towards restoring confidence in the bloc’s capacity to respond to a crisis. The true test of European relevance, however, may come after the crisis has subsided, when governments like Italy and France come to grips with the costs of their emergency measures to prevent economic collapse.
Christine Lagarde, who sparked a fierce backlash with her seeming indifference to keeping coronavirus-afflicted Italy in the Euro, reversed herself on Wednesday with a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program. This bond buying program will shore up the finances of member states such as Italy, Spain, and Greece.
It is also the same amount the ECB brought together through its European Financial Stability Facility ten years ago, offering yet another example of how the pandemic is creating a financial crisis on the scale of 2008. The EU has already been caught short by SARS-CoV-2; can it win back the confidence of shaken European publics by ensuring it is equipped to handle the months and years of financial repercussions that are sure to follow?
Image credit: NIH