Analysis: What is Europe’s coronavirus exit strategy?
It is the most difficult of periods for many in Europe. Tens of thousands of people have died, hundreds of thousands have been infected, millions have lost their jobs and many tens of millions have essentially been confined to their homes.
But this weekend seemed to mark a turning point – for some countries at least. Italy, Spain and France have consistently seen drops in their daily death rates, while in Germany the number of new cases fell, and in Belgium for the first time more people left hospital than arrived with COVID-19.
The health battle is far from over. Some parts of Europe are more than a week behind in terms of the spread of the virus. In the United Kingdom, Ireland and Sweden, the numbers continue to mount. The UK Prime Minister himself spent the night in hospital. And it’s clear that many more people across the continent will still get infected and some, unfortunately, will die.
Attention now, though, is turning to an exit strategy.
This hasn’t just been a health emergency but an economic one, too. France’s finance minister, for example, announced today that the country might see the biggest recession since World War Two. So the focus is moving to questions like: how do we restart our economies; get businesses to open again; get people back to work? All while limiting the risk of a possible second spike in coronavirus cases?
Well, governments have started work on this.
France, Spain, Belgium and Finland are among many that have set up expert committees to examine a gradual easing of stay-at-home orders. And today Austria became the first country in the EU to announce it will start re-opening its economy. Smaller shops will open their doors again from next week, while all retailers and shopping centres are to be back in business on 1 May.
Governments are trying to strike a fine balance.
The longer a country’s economy essentially remains shut down, the higher the number of forced closures of small businesses. And there’s a wider knock-on effect, too. The greater the rate of unemployment, the more it will ultimately cost all of us in the years to come.
And this isn’t just about the economic impact. The lockdown is putting a strain on people’s mental health, domestic abuse cases are rising and the education and prospects of millions of young people are being affected. Any relaxing of the rules will be gradual. Denmark and Belgium, for example, are considering splitting classes – and the school week – in two, to allow for better social distancing.
But life will not be returning to normal anytime soon.
There are no easy answers and there is no clear path, yet. Two things have become obvious, though. Firstly, all of us will have to work hard to prevent a second spike later this year. And secondly, indefinite periods of lockdown are simply unsustainable.
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