Covid-19 deaths in Europe crossed 100,000 on April 23. One of the richest regions with world-class healthcare, nations fell like dominoes once the contagion started its journey of death and destruction from China in late 2019.
What brought Europe to its knees was a blend of overconfidence in taking on a virus and risk-aversion to pausing businesses. Italy was the first to catch the virus and steadily others—Spain, France, the UK and Germany—caught it. Open borders, welcoming airports, soccer matches and socializing were the culprits, along with that smug attitude.
Maybe Italy was caught by surprise. The invisible enemy was probably already lurking in Italy for weeks. The Lombardy region in northern Italy, a tourist hotspot and an economic powerhouse, took the brunt with almost one-third of the country’s cases. It was but natural that Italian politicians were loath to shut down economic activity here.
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By the time Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte ordered a lockdown on March 12, which was slow and staggered, the virus had entrenched itself across the country. Yet the airports were still ferrying passengers between Europe and the rest of the world. Even as Italy was still trying to grapple with the virus, its neighbors carried on with their lives, not seeming to realize that the invisible enemy was knocking at their doors too.
Italy was the first EU country to ban flights to and from China. Even this did not <strong><a href="https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-europe-failed-the-test/">register with Europe</a></strong>.
Spain, fairly far from Italy by European standards probably fell to the virus due to its love for soccer. It is believed that nearly 2,500 Spanish football fans travelled to Milan in the virus-infested Lombardy region to watch the Atalanta-Valencia soccer match on February 19. Atalanta fans themselves numbered 40,000. This match later became known as the “biological bomb,” after many players, fans and sports journalists fell ill.
The Spanish did not learn. Once again, about 3,000 soccer fans flew for a Champions League match to Liverpool.
The International Women’s Day, March 8, was commemorated. Sports events were held, political meetings and demonstrations were happening. Even the far-right Vox party held its annual rally in Madrid. To the Spanish, ‘social distancing’ seemed like an alien term.
<strong><a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-28/johnson-s-war-with-coronavirus-is-no-joke-anymore">The British too</a> </strong>were planning celebrations and fireworks of their own. They had finally got the EU off their back. They had even minted the special 50 pence coins.
In the midst of this victory, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his advisors floated the idea that herd immunity would save the nation, so there was no need to panic. Like the Europeans, economy was top of their minds. The fine art of governance did not stop here. Someone high in the government suggested that it would be good if there were less than 20,000 deaths in the UK.
So far, so good. But Johnson got coronavirus—the first world leader to get it. He had to be admitted to the National Health Service. He also had to be administered oxygen. Well, he wasn't alone. Some of his senior health advisors too <a href="https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/with-pm-boris-johnson-ill-coronavirus-strikes-at-heart-of-british-politics-1661155-2020-03-30"><strong>had invited the infection</strong></a>.
With a population of 66 million, Britain's death toll is 18,100—close to what the administrators had projected. Despite the tragedy that unfolded in China and repeated itself in Iran and Italy, the British government either couldn't see it or didn’t want to see it.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer, of the Labor Party, summer it up when he told the Parliament: “There’s a pattern emerging here. We were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment, and are slow to take up these offers (to supply equipment) from British firms.”
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Starmer was probably was speaking for Europe.
The intensity of the infection was such that even France was caught in the maelstrom. Though it had begun to screen airport travellers around March 3, it shied away from taking decisive measures. Gatherings of 5,000 people were still allowed. Public transport was open and so were most tourist spots. Borders with the neighbors were open.
France also thought, like the UK, that its health system was ready for emergencies.
It was only on March 12 that French President Emmanuel Macron, in his address to the nation, announced strict measures. These included the cancellation of the Paris half-marathon and ban on public gatherings in the affected, northern areas of Paris. However, football matches were still unaffected.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. A day later, Spain went into lockdown and on March 15, France did the same. By then it was late to stop the rampaging epidemic. The elderly had begun dying in homes and even in senior citizens' homes. The much-vaunted European healthcare systems had crumbled.
The coronavirus caught an entire continent napping, giving China the opportunity to make sarcastic comments. It has <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/15/france-summons-chinese-envoy-after-coronavirus-slur"><strong>been announcing gleefully</strong></a> that it had been far efficient in handling and curbing the pandemic as compared to the Europeans.
The UK was marching to its own tune. European nations failed individually. Europe failed collectively as the EU. Staunchest ally—the US too let them down. Despite their individual prowess and their collective might, Europe was bled by a virus that flew from Wuhan.
Times are a changing and the world needs to prepare itself for that..