Reading time: 4 min.
Our generation has never come closer to a war-like situation in the European Union: In the most affected regions in Italy, Spain and other countries, shocking images show military vehicles deployed to pick up dead bodies from overwhelmed hospitals. Health workers are forced to decide which patients get scarce life-saving equipment. Yet, the far-reaching restrictions imposed by governments to provide short-term relief will need to be carefully weighed against the long-term collateral damage they might cause. How to exit the impasse?
Covid-19 has caused an unprecedented crisis that could change the world profoundly and forever. The virus is scarier than the SARS and MERS pandemics and spreads more easily than the locally confined Ebola outbreaks. Influenza viruses with similar symptoms have always posed under-estimated threats and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide each year. But in contrast to Covid-19, the world is more familiar with these viruses and their similarity facilitates finding vaccines and building immunity amongst populations.
As Covid-19 is a new coronavirus, governments understandably take swift, decisive action to slow down the infection rate. There is no doubt that human health matters most in the civilized world, before any economic or other considerations. However, it is important to grasp the extent of the most far-reaching restrictions of fundamental freedoms since World War II and to make sure that these drastic measures remain for a limited time period.
Unprecedented damage on many levels
Court cases are suspended and legal systems shut down, doing irreparable damage to the rule of law. Fundamental civil rights such as the freedom of assembly are suspended, providing an ideal pretext for semi-authoritarian governments to extend their powers indefinitely, as seen in Hungary. Chinese-style measures that would have been inconceivable a few weeks ago, such as personalized tracking of phones, are suddenly adopted in EU member states without much of a public outcry.
While some of the measures such as social distancing and better hygiene certainly are legitimate, others seem at best inefficient and at worst counterproductive. For example, when countries close their borders and cause long traffic jams on highways, supply chains risk being interrupted.
Nationalistic thinking comes back to Europe and causes mistrust, despite the lovely gesture of some countries admitting patients from neighbor countries. The Czech Republic and Poland have been accused of seizing life-saving equipment from China bound for Italy.
Apart from the health crisis’ direct consequences, we need to discuss the long-term side-effects of the restricting measures. The psychological and social damage, rising domestic violence, suicides, closing businesses. And what is being done to a society where citizens become so irrationally afraid that they ask their nurse neighbor to “go live somewhere else,” as reported in France?
Suppression vs. mitigation
A much-cited study by the London Imperial college concludes that a strategy of “suppressing” Covid-19 through extremely restrictive measures would be difficult to maintain until an effective vaccine is found in a year or more. The more likely scenario for most countries is “mitigation,” which aims to slow down, rather than to stop infections while letting populations develop immunity.
Sweden already pursues this objective without locking down their country while their direct neighbor Denmark goes along with most European countries’ drastic restrictions. Certainly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when and to what extent restrictions should be lifted. Italy will need to remain under a lockdown longer than others and should thus be supported by its European neighbors who cope better with the outbreak.
In the long run, however, the only reasonable option seems to be to mitigate the effects of the virus and to protect risk groups while letting the rest of the population step-by-step take up their professional and social activities again. Wide-spread random testing could indicate how many people have already had the virus and built up immunity without noticing it.
Clear Communication is key
While the UK has announced its restrictions will last up to six months before “returning to normal,” the Belgian health minister recently said the virus will remain in her country for eight to nine weeks only. The illusion that Covid-19 will miraculously disappear in a few weeks not only lacks any scientific evidence but is also dangerously misleading. It needs to be clearly communicated that society cannot maintain the current shut down until a vaccine is found, even if regulations are eased to speed up the testing process. Governments soon need an exit strategy to carefully roll back their measures without being irresponsible, as hospitals in less affected regions gain time to better prepare and the rate of new infections slows down in some parts of Europe.
Considering all aspects is crucial
Weighing human lives against the economy is morally impossible. However, tough questions will need to be faced: How long can governments’ aid packages stabilize their economies before risking collapse? How long can people be forced into quarantine before starting riots? At what point would shutdowns cause more harm and eventually risk costing more human lives than the coronavirus itself? In other words, how much are the measures worth when we risk not only political and economic instability but also sell democratic principles, fundamental rights and ultimately the future of the European Union?
Virologists, epidemiologists and doctors currently dominate the decision-making process and have more influence than ever. While their expertise is important, economists, psychologists and experts from other fields also need to join the discussion and assess the risks and trade-offs governments will face in the coming months.
Civil society has a saying in these decisions. If we are governed by fear, the health crisis will risk obscuring the social, economic, and political crises that we are creating. Instead of demanding a full lock-down by default, we need to think of what the most appropriate and efficient measures in our respective regional context are. Without panicking and neither under- nor over-estimating the real risks of Covid-19.
Uncertainty is poison, not only economically but also psychologically. More research on unknown aspects of the new virus will become available in the coming weeks. For example, more trustworthy scientific data will show if the actual fatality rate can be pushed below one percent or if it continues to be significantly higher. Decision-makers will then need the courage to make morally difficult choices that take all side-effects of the restrictions into consideration and provide an exit strategy: a cool-headed and long-term approach which keeps society functioning, while carefully building-up immunity amongst populations. Because neither is Covid-19 going away nor is it going to be the last pandemic that humanity will need to go through.
Frederic Göldner is a second-year master’s student at the ULB’s Institute for European Studies.