Grave mistakes have been done by authorities at the onset of the COVID crisis and even more consequential errors are being done today. This completes the picture of the total inadequacy of our Western democracies, in particular Europe, to react efficiently to a catastrophic event. Instead of congratulating each other, the leaders of the old-world (and others) would better serve their constituencies realising this failure and proposing democratic amendments to it. Or, maybe, it is asking too much.
We have now proven that COVID-19 has been with us for much longer than we thought. Who knows what information the secret services of different countries were exchanging (or keeping for themselves) before China belatedly publicly shared the news with us all. Even so, leaders of the Western democracies had 5–7 weeks to prepare to what really looked inevitable: the spread of COVID to the West.
What have we seen during those 5–7 weeks? We have seen the Italian Ministry of Health, explaining how the virus would never have reached Italy because the Italian Healthcare system is way more advanced than the Chinese (yes, really!). We have seen Boris Johnson playing with the idea of herd immunity —even before knowledge of how our immune systems build defences to this particular virus. We have seen Emmanuel Macron, who, as Italy was already counting the dead by the dozen, publicly went to theatre with his wife because, he said “French people should continue to go out despite the coronavirus pandemic” (he also irresponsibly forced more than 20m French electors to the polling stations a week later).
This unbearable downplaying has created the conditions for the disaster that data tell all too well. I show this in the chart below, that delivers a clear message: continents matter. Asia has clearly handled this the best. Americas are worse, and deteriorating further. There seems to be two Europes: only in the German sphere of influence death rates (by million inhabitant) are (higher but) comparable to Asia. Elsewhere, it is a catastrophe.
Because the virus spread everywhere, differences in death rates must have to do with each countries’ endemic characteristics. I would single out two factors that, in my opinion, explain asymmetric developments in different countries: health infrastructure and politics (public health strategies). These two might overlap (a good politician invest in the right amount of health infrastructure that will protect its constituency), but not necessarily. It is one thing to have sound investment programs in hospitals or in public medical research institutions and another one to act decisively and strategically when a crisis hits.
For example, it is a widespread misconception that Germany dealt with COVID better than others. I live in Berlin, and I have seen the same tentativeness and approximation in crisis management that I have read about anywhere else. Clashes between local and federal authorities, angry debates between virologists that gave rise to lack of policy direction, poor communication of measures, etc. The — so-far — good German mortality score is due to a much higher quality of the health system (in terms of infrastructure, personnel, and research) than in France, Italy, or Spain, not to a better crisis management.
Similarly, I interpret the abysmal situation in Belgium more as a direct consequence of the quasi-uninterrupted political crisis from 2007, than a mishandling of the emergency by the current government.
Of course, our political leaders have the alibi that you really can’t fully prepare for an event such as COVID. This might excuse authorities’ initial hesitancy, but it does not explain the fallacies that the same governments are piling up in the post-lockdown period.
In the last seven days, more than a million new cases have emerged worldwide, the quickest pace since the beginning of the pandemic. In terms of deaths, it is the third deadliest week. WHO has just declared that the pandemic is still accelerating, and that it is reaching a particularly critical phase. And yet, if you live in Europe there is a widespread sense of ‘Mission accomplished’.
One after the other, countries are removing the remaining restrictions to public life. Last week, Switzerland has announced the lift of all restrictions for June 22. Spain has just declared the end of the COVID emergency and re-opened its borders. French cinemas, casinos, and holiday centres have resumed operations. The Government there has announced that starting July 11, it will open to the public sporting events with less than 5,000 spectators. Schools are re-opening in many countries, such as France and Germany. Politicians are resuming their (open-air) rallies.
We should certainly rejoice about all this, both for our personal freedom and the economy of our countries. And what I argue is definitely not to re-impose tougher restrictions, or keep them more than what is needed. But receiving an email from my daughter’s school about the resumption of normal operations, while other schools in Berlin are forced to re-close because of new cases, and the reproduction index skyrockets to 2.88 makes me wonder what the hell are we doing.
I am Italian and live in Germany, but I have spent long segments of my life in America and in Asia as well, so I tend to read any event through the prism of multi-culturalism. I sensed something, since the very start of this pandemic: a sense of superiority, a permanent attitude of “we know better” from the authorities of the ‘old-Europe’. From our professorial lectern, we looked with contempt to the restrictions on personal freedoms and privacy rights in Asia, with condescendence to the management of the crisis in the Americas. Yet, what is our record? Italy, France, Spain, the UK all have mortality ratios more than a hundred times higher than China, Korea, and all the South East Asian countries, where the epidemic started. Morbidity in Europe still surpasses the one in the U.S. or Brazil, whose public health reaction we constantly belittle in our news reports.
This, of course, is not new. On the contrary, in my opinion, it is the ultimate reason why old-Europe is lagging so badly (and increasingly so) the U.S. and China in the ability to develop new ideas, discover innovative technologies, or constantly re-invent themselves. And the paradox is that we Europeans are so deep into this alternate reality that we still think we are better, fairer, and way ahead of any other. An example? GDPR, the ambitious European privacy regulation that does not impinge the ability by Google to publish a real-time mobility index, but forbids to put a camera in a classroom for children who, because they have a vulnerable member in their households, can’t be at school.
So what to do differently?
First, communication around easing of restrictions is totally misplaced. I have to wear a mask when I enter a shop, why politicians do not when they address the Nation? Certainly, it is more agreeable and reassuring to hear that we can finally travel from a smiling, unmasked face. But should citizens really be reassured? Last June 10, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron jointly urged the EU to be better prepared for the next epidemics. We have not yet prevailed over the current one, last time I checked. This is an example of the communication our leaders should not have, especially as we ease restrictions.
Second, the real reasons for the hasty lift of restrictions must be explained for what they are: the necessity to keep our economies alive, in no way an end of the emergency. One of the media preferred topics, these days, is the ‘trade-off’ between human lives and economics. It is a gross misconstrue. The economy is you, you, you, and me, not some abstract thing. We are thriving with the economy, dying without it. Re-opening for business as the virus still circulates is saving lives that the destruction of jobs and businesses put at risk. The fact that no politician have the guts to tell this reflects the poor quality of our political systems.
Third, the restrictions that remain in place must be strictly enforced by the police. Two weeks ago, in Berlin, 15,000 people (ten times more than had been communicated to the police) filled, unopposed, Alexander Platz for the BlackLivesMatter protest. Considering the COVID incubation period of 7–10 days, the increase in Berlin’s cases should not surprise anybody. So, the police’s politically correct failure to disperse the crowd has been criminal in this case.
Nobody says it is easy to be a political leader in our times, especially if you have to face the greatest sanitary emergency in more than a hundred years. But we should all expect an effort in the quality of our authorities’ communication, as restrictions are lifted. Instead, especially in the old-Europe countries, they congratulate — themselves and each other — in a pathetic and dangerous self-celebration. Citizens take the cue and increasingly act as if this battle was already won. How many deaths, in the coming weeks and months, we should impute to our leaders’ inability to lead?