BY NOW, JUST ABOUT EVERYONE KNOWS THAT COVID-19 IS NO LAUGHING MATTER, much less “like the flu,” as one prominent American politician long insisted (until he caught it).
Seven months into the pandemic – just in time for the second wave we all hoped wouldn’t arrive but knew was inevitable – Europeans have become decidedly more sophisticated about how to handle the crisis.
In contrast to the shock, horror and panic that swept the Continent in March, a more sanguine “wir schaffen das” (We can do it) spirit has taken hold this time. For the most part, Europeans are wearing masks and keeping distance while doing their best to live somewhat normal lives.
Attempting to manage infection risk while keeping the economy from collapsing is far from an exact science though. And with Europe’s second wave building, the numbers tell a grim tale. At the peak of the first wave there were nearly 32,000 recorded cases per day across the EU27 and the U.K. It is close to three times that now.
So far, nearly 200,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19 and 4.5 million people have been infected in the EU, U.K. and the European Economic Area. The region’s economy is expected to contract by more than 8 percent this year.
With infection rates on the rise in many countries POLITICO decided it was time to take stock of how the region’s political class have performed so far. What policies worked and which ones didn’t? This ranking — though informed by the grim COVID-19 stats — did not undergo the rigors of peer review, nor is it based on any criteria stipulated by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control or Johns Hopkins University. Instead, it’s a mostly subjective, political look at The Good, the Bad and the Ugly….
Everyone loves a good redemption tale. And everyone loves Italy. No place embodies the European way of life, at least in aspirational terms, like the country of Dante and Ferrari. That’s why no European was left cold by the scenes of horror that emerged from Bergamo in February. Thanks to Italy, the rest of the Continent understood “the depth and dimension of the crisis,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who made his first foreign visit after the outbreak to Milan, said last month.
More importantly, Italy showed the rest of Europe how to turn things around. Spooked by the dramatic death toll in the Lombardy region, the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte sprang into action, using the license he won through emergency decrees to get the country’s famously sclerotic administration moving. That helped Italy flatten the curve more quickly than anyone thought possible. Conte also made the case for a generous European recovery fund, playing a key role in convincing Merkel to drop Germany’s resistance to common debt issuance, while proving that not even the stone-faced chancellor is immune to Italian charm.
In almost any global country ranking, whether the subject is quality of life, happiness or quality of education, the Nordics are at or near the top. Coronavirus is no different (for the most part). Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark have all weathered the pandemic in solid shape so far. (That all four countries are led by women may or may not be a coincidence.)
The Nordics’ quick imposition of restrictions at the beginning of the crisis helped mute the infection rate, allowing the government to leave shops open and then relax most controls over the summer. That both saved lives and blunted the economic impact. The same is broadly true of the neighboring Baltic countries, which have been spared the worst of the pandemic, suffering fewer than 220 deaths cumulatively. Across the north, efficient public administration in rolling out testing and the public’s willingness to comply with restrictions have been the keys to success.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s nationally televised, press conference-style question and answer sessions with schoolchildren are just one example of the region’s innovative political spirit.
Finland’s millennial Prime Minister Sanna Marin has won the most praise for showing, despite her relative inexperience, grace under pressure. While Finland (and the rest of the region) has a number of natural advantages such as geographic isolation, strong social cohesion and a fairly small population, Marin was only four months into the job when the pandemic hit. Finland’s famed crisis preparation offered the new leader a handy template, but at the end of the day, it was up to her. Coronavirus cases in Finland, a country of 5.5 million, have been rising recently (Marin herself had to leave the European Council summit this week after discovering she had been exposed to the virus), but the death rate in the country from the virus (6.34 per 100,000) remains one of the region’s lowest.
Greece of my heart
No country seemed better placed to get walloped by COVID-19 than Greece. The country’s economy is still reeling from the depression it suffered during the debt crisis, it has one of Europe’s oldest populations — so vulnerable to the most severe effects of the virus — and its citizens are famous for their stubborn refusal to follow rules.
Turns out that the risk of death – or the collective memory of plagues past – focuses the Greek mind more than the threat of financial ruin. Under the deft stewardship of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Athens made the case quickly and effectively that Greeks needed to take the pandemic seriously. And they listened, taking one of Europe’s most stringent lockdowns, including the shuttering of schools and churches, in stride.
The radical steps, which began in March, kept the virus in check, but put the economy under even further strain. By early May, the government lifted the restrictions, hoping to save at least some of the tourist season, a key source of revenue for the entire economy. But open borders or not, the tourists all but stopped coming. The IMF now projects the Greek economy to contract by 9.5 percent this year.
Nonetheless, the government has succeeded in keeping the virus under control. Though cases have risen significantly in recent weeks, Greece still has one Europe’s lowest death rates (4.49 per 100,000). That’s all the more impressive given that the government has had to deal with emergencies on two other fronts: Turkey’s attempted gas grab in the eastern Mediterranean and the refugee crisis on the island of Lesvos.
East of the Rhine
All in all, Europe’s German-speaking lands and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have managed the crisis well.
Germany is often held up as the European model for its pandemic strategy, but it also made plenty of mistakes, including a slow initial response and Berlin’s decision to close most borders. The country’s disjointed federal governance structure, which puts responsibility for health and education with Germany’s 16 states, has also made it difficult for Chancellor Angela Merkel to impose nationwide policies. That has left Germany with a patchwork of coronavirus of rules and regulations that are often more confusing than helpful.
Even so, Merkel’s persistent calls on the population to wear masks and observe social distancing (which comes naturally to most Germans) has helped Germany avoid the fate of other large countries, where the pandemic spun out of control.
Austria was also slow off the mark. Indeed, many in Europe blame the Alpine nation for helping to spread the virus across the region by failing to manage a major outbreak in the Tyrolean ski resort of Ischgl in February. The Ischgl cluster was a wake-up call for Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. His government quickly imposed tough restrictions across the country, including sealing off entire towns, to bring the spread under control. That strategy worked through the summer, although cases are now spiking again with a daily rate more than 50 percent higher than the peak in March. Despite that, Austria’s death rate (10.9 per 100,000) is lower than Germany’s.
Sweden. Who would believe this? By any objective measure, the country, long regarded by progressives as the gold standard of governance, dropped the ball on COVID-19. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven effectively handed responsibility for the government response to Sweden’s guru-like chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, who opposes masks and argued against closing schools, shops or restaurants. For Tegnell, lockdowns are “using a hammer to kill a fly.”
Tegnell insists that he was not “definitely not” pursuing a “herd immunity” strategy to build up immunity to the virus in the population, although a batch of emails exchanged with a colleague in Finland that were obtained by a Swedish journalist rather suggest he was. Whatever the plan, it has so far resulted in more than 100,000 infections and a case fatality ratio (the proportion of those infected who die) of 5.8 percent, on par with Sudan’s. The rate in neighboring Norway is just 1.7 percent.
Sweden is still a model – at least among adherents of the corona-denying fringe. If Löfven, a Social Democrat, is having second thoughts, he’s not betraying them. For now, he’s sticking to his motto: hålla i och hålla ut (“keep battling on”).
If coronavirus has taught Europe one thing, it’s that no country can afford to rest on its laurels. Exhibit A: the Czech Republic. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš might be known as Central Europe’s “mini-Trump,” but the populist Czech billionaire’s initial response to the pandemic didn’t borrow heavily from the Trump playbook (other than an early ban on direct flights from China on February 9).
The Czech Republic was the first country in Europe to mandate masks, shut schools and close non-essential shops. It was also the first to ease lockdown restrictions, beginning with small shops on April 9. That’s when the trouble started.
Babiš then sidelined the architect of the country’s response, epidemiologist Roman Prymula. The sense of national pride that swept the country at the start of summer quickly turned to hubris. When cases started rising in early August, the government was caught flat-footed. Babiš ignored the warning signs and worried that reimposing restrictions would anger the business community. So he did nothing.
After daily infections surpassed levels seen last spring, the health minister tried to reimpose mask-wearing rules for stores. But Babiš vetoed a return to the restrictions. The result: infections soared. An increasingly desperate Babiš responded by firing the health minister on September 21 and replacing him with none other than Prymula, the epidemiologist he had been ignoring for months.
It might be too late. Infection rates in the country of 10.5 million have exploded over the past month. In recent days, the number of new daily cases has shattered one record after another. Of the roughly 150,000 cases in the country since the pandemic began, one-third have been confirmed in the last week alone — though the country’s death rate is still in line with Germany’s.
The French love to hate the way their government handled the COVID-19 crisis.
At first they were complaining that the government was caught with its pants down, didn’t have a strategic reserve of masks or the industrial capacity to produce tests. Looking over at the seeming efficiency on display across the Rhine only made things worse. Then, once everyone had masks, many of the French got sick of wearing them and were unhappy with the increasingly coercive guidelines making mask-wearing compulsory. The failure of Emmanuel Macron’s government to implement effective testing and tracing or issue coherent safety guidelines further soured public confidence.
Seven months into the pandemic, French leaders still routinely try to absolve themselves by citing how new and unpredictable this new virus is, when other countries seem to be less baffled by it. Authorities also avoided enforcing strict guidelines during the summer holidays — a sacrosanct French ritual — for fear of a social revolt worse than the Yellow Jackets, but that led to the unintended consequence of precipitating the second wave, as the French were more lax in following health guidelines.
With daily cases (at nearly 20,000 per day) now far higher than in Germany and more than three times even than Italy, which had been harder hit in the spring, the situation is deteriorating fast. Macron told the nation in March that it was “at war” with the virus. Currently, it looks like one he is losing.
Spanish Civil War
Spain has the tragic distinction of being the country hardest hit by both the first and the second waves of the pandemic. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez followed a standard COVID-19 playbook last spring, declaring a “state of alarm” and enforcing some of the Continent’s harshest restrictions. But Spain’s underfunded and understaffed health care system simply couldn’t cope, leaving the country with one of the world’s highest death rates from the virus (72 per 100,000). By the time the state of emergency expired on June 21, Sánchez’s government had managed to flatten the curve. Trouble is, it didn’t stay flat for long. By mid-July, at the height of the tourist season, infections ticked up again.
Blame politics. Spain’s conservative opposition withdrew support for Sánchez’s lockdown measures in June, leaving the country’s 17 states effectively in the cornavirus driver’s seat, with the power to declare a local state of emergency. So far, none have dared, fearing the reputational fallout. The result has been an uneven, often inept, response to the crisis.
While Madrid, the epicenter of Spain’s outbreak, has registered more than 560 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks — prompting the national government to seize control of coronavirus restrictions — regions including Valencia and Asturias report less than half that amount. More than six months into the pandemic, Spain has yet to implement an effective regimen to track and trace the coronavirus, a central failure that has frustrated efforts to slow its spread. So far, polls suggest voters don’t blame Sánchez — that may not last.
Most of the European countries hit hardest by the pandemic suffered mainly because they were caught off guard. The U.K., on the other hand, slid into COVID-19 oblivion with eyes wide open. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was so unruffled by the pending storm that he skipped several emergency meetings on the subject early in the year. Even by early March, as the pandemic had northern Italy in its grip, Johnson seemed oblivious to the danger, telling a press conference that he’d visited a hospital caring for coronavirus patients and “shook hands with everybody.”
A few weeks later, Johnson himself contracted the virus. His bout with the disease – and near death while in intensive care – salvaged his approval ratings, which reached 66 percent by mid-April.
Since then, there has been a slow unravelling of public confidence, as details of the government’s lack of preparation have emerged and the virus has hit the country hard (England had the worst death rate of any European country between January and June, according to the country’s statistics body). Major failures which gradually came to light include a huge death toll in care homes (which were forced to take back coronavirus patients early in the outbreak) and not getting significant testing capacity off the ground quickly. Public anger spiked with the revelation in late May that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s closest aide, had flagrantly broken lockdown rules.
As the height of the emergency turned into the long haul, Johnson struggled to articulate a long-term strategy or clear messages for the public – a symptom of being torn between his scientific advice and political convictions that personal freedoms should be prioritized. His Conservative party has become increasingly restless in recent weeks, with opponents of tougher restrictions becoming bolder and forcing the government into a concession that any major new national measures must be put to a vote.
Despite it all, Johnson’s Conservatives retain a slight edge over Labour in the polls. The question is whether that will survive the second wave.
Heart of Europe
If the EU’s mandarins ever needed a reminder over the past several months of just how bad the crisis could get in Europe, they needed only to have looked out their own window. It didn’t take long for Brussels to establish itself as one of Europe’s coronavirus hot zones. The rest of Belgium didn’t fare much better. Theories abound on the reasons, from the country’s status as a diplomatic and transportation crossroads to its densely housed urban population.
A more plausible cause is political dysfunction. Belgium barely works at the best of times, thanks to its fractious provincial structure and regional rivalries. Unfortunately for the Belgians, and the country’s many foreign residents, the pandemic hit during one of the country’s frequent political interregnums. The task of combatting the pandemic was left to Sophie Wilmès, the inexperienced, then-interim prime minister.
Communication with the public was poor. Belgium’s non-traditional (though some might argue commendably transparent) methodology for counting COVID -19 deaths further sowed confusion. Even today, it is difficult to compare Belgium to other countries on the basis of the government’s data. But this much is clear: The situation is bad.
The newly established Belgian government of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has promised better coordination to tackle the virus, taking a page out of the EU’s playbook by naming a new “Commissioner” tasked with managing the government’s coronavirus response. Given the country’s record so far, it would be difficult for him to fail.
Charlie Cooper, Cristina Gallardo, Rym Momtaz, Charlie Duxbury, Siegfried Mortkowitz, Sarah Wheaton, Jacopo Barigazzi and Cornelius Hirsch contributed reporting.