LONDON – European Union leaders have agreed to hold an emergency virtual summit on Thursday (Oct 28) to discuss how they propose to tackle a new and dangerous spike in coronavirus infections.
But, since more hesitant efforts to contain the pandemic have not produced the hoped-for results, a return to the draconian national shutdowns which every European leader sought to avoid now looks to be a distinct possibility.
Last week, Spain earned the dubious honour of becoming the first European country to register one million infections, a record swiftly followed by France. And Britain, with about 900,000 cumulative cases, is not far behind.
Fresh infection rates are soaring to levels not seen since the pandemic first struck the continent earlier this year.
And according to the latest statistics compiled by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, apart from steadily rising infection rates in Belgium, France Germany and Britain, the virus is now affecting the relatively poorer central and eastern European countries, with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland hit particularly hard.
President Andrzej Duda of Poland has tested positive for the coronavirus, as has his defence minister.
But the trend which worries European leaders most is the renewed pressure on their countries’ medical services. The current wave of infections is led by younger people, so until now it had little impact on hospital admissions or mortality rates.
However, this is changing fast. While on average only around a fifth of all the acute care hospital beds across Europe are currently occupied by Covid-19 patients in critical condition, in big European capitals such as Paris, that figure is already edging up towards the 40 per cent of all acute care beds. And this is ahead of winter and the flu season, which hit the elderly and vulnerable, and always drive hospital admissions up.
As these worrying trends became clearer, most European leaders have tried to prevent a return to the total national shutdowns of the past, largely because an informal consensus has emerged on the continent that Europe can no longer risk the severe economic impact of a total lockdown.
Yet one country after another is now applying lockdown measures in anything but name. The Czech authorities have now shut down schools, restaurants and most shops and services, notwithstanding the fact that Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis claimed as late as Monday this week that he “can’t imagine” a “full economic shutdown”.
Poland may go down the same route by the end of this week, unless infection rates slow down – something which seems unlikely.
Meanwhile French President Emmanuel Macron – whose government tried everything possible to avoid a national shutdown through a recent surge in coronavirus cases – acknowledged that the country could be heading back towards broader restrictions.
And Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who warned that his country is “immersed in the second wave of the pandemic”, imposed a state of emergency, combined with a total curfew from 11pm each day.
The Spanish government was also more realistic than many of its European counterparts by admitting that the current measures could last for the next six months.
But the political stakes are exceptionally high for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her stewardship of the pandemic earlier this year was hailed worldwide as a model of good governance.
However, matters may be different now as the country faces a new wave of infections. The Chancellor is reputed to have told top leaders of her ruling Christian Democratic Union party in comments, which were leaked to the media, that Germany’s “situation is threatening” and that the nation faces “very, very difficult months ahead”.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has been largely side-lined, as EU member-states went their own separate ways in fighting the pandemic.
Nonetheless, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission’s president, has reactivated a crisis unit that she had set up earlier this year to deal with the pandemic.
In theory, the Commission has as its disposal up a fund of up to 750 billion euros to offer a mixture of grants and loans to countries affected by the pandemic.
But all of this is far from sufficient in the face of the new recession that Europe may be facing.
While the EU economy did not perform as badly as initially feared during the second and third quarters of this year, the Commission’s autumn forecast scheduled to be released next week is likely to be very gloomy. So, the EU executive is preparing for fresh discussions about allocating even bigger funds.
“It is very likely that we will have to redefine an orchestrated response,” French President Emmanuel Macron recently admitted.
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