Coronavirus in Europe: An inside view of how the situation compares in different countries

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Coronavirus in Europe: An inside view of how the situation compares in different countries
Photo: AFP

The coronavirus pandemic has upended normal life across Europe. Here our journalists and contributors from across eight countries give an inside view on the situation where they are on Friday March 20th.


Clare Speak, Bari, southern Italy

It's day 11 of quarantine here in Italy and cabin fever is setting in. We're told not to leave the house unless strictly necessary, such as to buy food or medicine. If we do go out, we need to take a signed self-declaration form, giving our reasons for doing so. Everything is closed, except for food shops, pharmacies, and the tabaccherie, where we go to pay our bills and print out more self-declaration forms.

In the first few days of the quarantine, people kept anxiety at bay by singing and applauding from balconies, and hanging colourful signs from windows. I haven't seen any of that this week. We're feeling the silence here in Bari, southern Italy, and the stillness in the normally chaotic streets never gets any less surreal.

People are taking the risks seriously now. There are still some people out in the streets; a lot of people jogging all of a sudden, dog walkers, and plenty of pizza deliveries. In the old town, elderly men still sit outside and teenagers hang around on scooters, now wearing masks. But the vast majority are staying in.

A woman walks across a deserted Pope Pius XII square in Rome, near the Vatican's St. Peter's Square (Rear), on March 19, 2020 during the lockdown within the new coronavirus pandemic. Photo: AFP

There are police on roads and street corners questioning people. We've had police cars driving around broadcasting the rules over loudspeaker, and sanitation vans are hosing down the streets.

Everyone's waiting for a sign that the number of cases and deaths in Italy has peaked, that quarantine measures are paying off. But it looks like we may be waiting days or even weeks yet.

It's likely to peak in parts of northern Italy long before it does here in the south. In the last few days we've been seeing the numbers rising around Bari, with many cases connected to people who were working or studying in the north and fled home when the quarantine measures were first announced.

For now, we're just hoping that these measures were enough to prevent outbreaks on a similar scale in southern Italy and elsewhere.

CLICK HERE to read The Local Italy's coronavirus coverage

Graham Keeley, Barcelona, Spain

I am celebrating my birthday today in lockdown. (No, don't ask how many candles). 

Of course this has meant that all the presents have been home made, but I didn't do badly; a painting of Stonehenge and a box full of promises for when this is all over. Learning boogie woogie piano from one of my sons is one I am looking forward to. 

Quite when this will finish remains uncertain. 

The number of people who have lost their lives in Spain today topped 1,000 and the total number of cases is approaching 20,000. 

We have been on lockdown for nearly a week but it seems likely this will be prolonged for weeks. 

Spain has been shocked by the deaths of elderly residents across the country. 

A passenger wearing a face mask as a protective measure looks at two police officers as they use a travelator at the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suarez Airport in Barajas on March 20th, 2020. Photo: AFP

The coronavirus has torn through these rest homes, cutting down the most vulnerable in society with brutal haste. At least 80 people have died and residential home organisations have blamed a lack of face masks and protective gloves. 

Spain's left-wing coalition government has announced an extra €300 million for regional governments to provide extra health provisions for residential homes. 

All the hotels across Spain must close next week by order of the government, a telling sign in a country which owes 12 percent of its GDP and 13 percent of all jobs to tourism. 

Tourists are scrambling to get out of a country which they are normally so anxious to come to. 

So deserted are the cities that wild boars have been spotted roaming streets in the centre of Barcelona and elsewhere.

The army and police are on the streets to make sure people comply with the regulations of the state of emergency order. 

The vast majority have stayed in their homes.

Only a tiny minority have disobeyed the strict regulations by taking tortoises or toy dogs for a walk attached to pieces of string. 

Some have rented out their dogs to stir crazy neighbours. 

It is what is known as la picaresca española – a particularly Spanish delight in defying authority.

CLICK HERE to read The Local Spain's coronavirus coverage

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Emma Pearson, Paris, France

It's a slightly strange time in France. We are running The Local from laptops in our apartments, but we're lucky that our work is relatively easy to do from home. Many people cannot work at all and although France's finance minister promised that 'no one will lose a centime' due to the coronavirus, there is still a lot of uncertainty for many people.
We have been in strict lockdown since Tuesday, with the rules gradually tightening as some people simply ignored them, although it does seem that the majority of people have been abiding by the 'stay indoors' instruction, making the streets here in Paris eerily quiet.
We are allowed to leave our homes for essential shopping and appointments only, and even the rules on jogging have now been restricted to a 2km run only.
A person rides a scooter on March 20, 2020, past the Alexandre III Bridge with the Hotel des Invalides in Paris in the background, on the fourth day of a strict lockdown in France. Photo: AFP
But at 8pm we all come out onto our balconies or open the windows and cheer for France's heroic emergency workers who are putting their lives on the line every day to keep others safe.
Last night we had singing, cheers and whistling, while my young neighbours added some amateur percussion with a couple of pans and a spoon – a very welcome moment of humanity and connection in the midst of dislocation and fear.
At the moment our lockdown extends until the end of March, but health authorities have already said this is highly likely to be extended given the deteriorating situation in France.
The number of cases doubles every four days and now stands at more than 10,000, although without widespread testing the country's health minister says the estimated number of cases is probably nearer 20,000.
The death toll stands at more than 300 and rising every day. In the east of the country, which is the worst affected, a military hospital has been set up after local medical services were overwhelmed with the sheer number of cases.
Helena Bachmann, Lake Geneva, Switzerland
With the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Switzerland reaching 3,800 (and more expected in coming days) this small country of 8.5 million people is one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic compared to its population size.
Still, there is no sense of general chaos or frenzy, even though a state of emergency declared earlier this week means people are mostly confined to their homes and all businesses except for food stores and pharmacies have been closed.
That sense of relative calm prevails because the Swiss are generally disciplined and inclined to follow the rules – especially those set out by their health authorities.
While the streets in towns big and small are mostly empty, those who are out and about are careful to keep their distance from each other.
The same applies to supermarkets where frequent announcements remind customers to stay away from
others and not congregate in aisles and around cash registers.
In stores, there is no visible panic-buying, even though earlier reports indicated that supermarkets in some locations had been partially emptied of certain non-perishable items.
This week, shelves in major chains such as Migros and Coop were well stocked, except toilet paper and hand disinfectant.
An ambulance heads to the hospital in Geneva. AFP
Pharmacies have taken special measures to protect staff and customers from catching coronavirus. In some, yellow tape on the floor now indicates the direction of the queue, with 'x' marking spots where customers should stand, at a safe distance from each other.
Staff are protected not only with masks, but also fiberglass panels placed on the counters to avoid too-close contacts between clients and pharmacists.
One major fear expressed on local social media is that the health care system may not have enough resources – that is, medical personnel, number of beds, and life-saving equipment – to meet the needs of most critically ill patients.
But many people also remain optimistic that soon the virus will be contained and normal life will resume.

Emma Löfgren, Stockholm, Sweden:

Sweden is becoming an outlier in Europe in that it has not yet implemented many of the restrictions we are seeing in other countries. Events of more than 500 people have been banned and the EU’s entry ban applies here as well, but there’s no nationwide closure of schools, pubs, restaurants or anything else. 

Unlike in many other countries, even for example neighbouring Denmark, the Swedish government holds comparatively limited powers and most of the main decisions to prevent the spread of the virus are made by the Public Health Agency, which does not believe closing schools at this stage would be an effective measure. But that does not mean it won't happen at all.

A passenger looks on a board that displays cancelled flights at the international terminal of Arlanda airport, north of Stockholm, on March 16th, 2020, where air traffic slowed down due to the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. AFP

Many people in Sweden are used to this kind of decision-making process and relying on public authorities in times like these, but for many international residents who are seeing their home countries make radically different choices, it is hard to know who to put their faith in.

More than 40 people have been treated in intensive care since the start of the outbreak, and around a dozen people have died. Sweden’s main strategy at the moment is focused on protecting the elderly, who belong to the biggest risk group, and over-70s have been told not to have direct social contact with others. Several community initiatives have been set up to help the elderly with their food shop.

People are being urged to work from home if they can – and while it is certainly not possible for everyone, it is easier in tech-savvy Sweden than in many other places – and to avoid travelling within the country, especially to and from the bigger cities where the infection is spreading.

In city centres, cafés and bars are by no means empty, but less busy than normal. The government has introduced measures to help businesses make it through the crisis, but many people are concerned about their livelihoods, whether they are small business owners, entrepreneurs, laid-off employees or work permit holders whose right to stay in Sweden depends on their income

CLICK HERE to catch up on The Local Sweden's coronavirus coverage

Rachel Stern, Berlin, Germany

Germany is one of the worst-hit countries in Europe by the coronavirus pandemic, with over 16,600 confirmed cases as of Friday at noon, yet it is also so far one of the most lenient in terms of measures being taken to slow the spread of the virus. 

Bavaria became the first state to impose a curfew on Friday, while most of the rest of the country has just had restrictive measures in place since Monday, March 16th. 

All non-essential shops were ordered to close, although restaurants and cafes were allowed to stay open until 6pm each day. Bars and clubs, as well as cultural and religious institutions, have also been ordered to shut their doors. Schools and nurseries are also closed until the end of Easter holidays on April 20th. The government has forbidden any travel until the end of April.

A picture taken on March 20, 2020 shows an almost empty terrace in the center of Munich, southern Germany, where activities came to a halt due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Photo: AFP

On Tuesday, the Robert Koch public health institute raised the threat level of the coronavirus in Germany to high, with some particularly hard hit areas – such as Heinsberg in North Rhine-Westphalia – receiving a 'very high' rating. In a bid to free up more needed medical space as the number of severe cases rises, Germany also announced on Wednesday that it would be doubling its intensive respiratory care beds, and using hotels and large halls for treatment if need be.

Yet German residents could face a nationwide lockdown, which is to be decided over the weekend, if many continue to ignore orders to stay indoors. While Merkel made a rare TV appeal on Wednesday to "take this seriously" many Germans continue to gather outside in the spring weather or at cafes.

In central Berlin where we are the streets are noticeably quieter, with "closed" signs hung on many business doors and empty patios. However, people continue to walk in small groups, leisurely sip coffee in the large number of cafes still open during the day, or queue up for a currywurst

CLICK HERE to catch up on The Local German's coronavirus coverage

Emma Firth, Copenhagen, Denmark:

It’s been nine days now since the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen decisively announced that Denmark would go into lockdown, to slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

It was going to be tough, she said, but this was absolutely what was needed to control this very serious situation.

"Act today, rather than regret tomorrow," was her stance, as cases of coronavirus were soaring. Days later came the closure of the country's borders, and then the closure of all shops, bars and restaurants, except for pharmacies and those selling food. Then came the Queen. In an historic moment, she addressed the nation, live on Tuesday night. She told people not to be reckless, to listen to the government and stay away from other people. 

There have been nine deaths linked to the coronavirus so far in Denmark. Testing for the virus has now changed to only acute cases. 

A police officer controls a car driver at the Danish border in Moellehus, Denmark, on March 14th, 2020. AFP

And so, nine days since lockdown measures were first introduced, Denmark is very quiet.

People are heeding advice: cycling, walking, running at a safe distance from one another.

It took a few days to get into it, as people changed working habits, got into the swing of childcare from home, tested the boundaries of what could be done. But now the message and boundaries are very clear, as is the help employers and employees are going to get during this unprecedented time. There is a feeling that people are coming together.

Stock-piling has stopped and the supermarkets are full of supplies. Parents are sharing tips for entertaining and educating children at home. Elderly neighbours are being checked on and brought shopping. Apartment blocks are supporting each other, even a clap-along was held earlier in the week. 

And then there is nature and the outdoors –  the one saving grace. Unlike other European countries, this is still unrestricted for people in Denmark. One can only hope that cases slow down and people keep to social distancing so that a country, rooted in outdoor life, can stay that way.

CLICK HERE to catch up on The Local Denmark's coronavirus coverage


Stine Bergo, Oslo, Norway

In just a week, Norway went from a state of gentle concern to anxiously awaiting things to get worse. Last week, the government closed all nurseries, schools and universities and told everyone who can to work from home.

Bars and hair dressers have closed down, but restaurants remain open and people can still go out for a meal (if they follow the health advice and keep one metre distance between themselves) - keeping in mind that Norwegians traditionally rarely eat out (it’s very expensive) compared to their southern European neighbours.

Seven people have died from the coronavirus in Norway and 108 people are currently in hospital. So far, 1,552 people have been confirmed as having the coronavirus, but the real number is likely to be much higher, as only health workers and the particularly vulnerable are being tested. 

Anyone who recently went abroad must self-quarantine for two weeks. I am one of them - I came back from Copenhagen early March - but I can still move around freely because I don’t have any symptoms. When I am not working on my bachelor thesis I can go for walks in Oslo’s many parks and enjoy the beginning of spring, while talking big circles around the many other sun-deprived Norwegians who are doing the same. People are supposed to keep one metre between themselves, but it’s proving to be tricky to maintain.

Officers of the Norwegian Civil Defense are seen at the border between Norway and Sweden in Swinesund on March 16, 2020.AFP

The rules are much stricter for anyone who thinks they might be contaminated by the coronavirus. Those showing symptoms must self-isolate for two weeks, or risk a 20,000 NOK fine (€1,673) or even 15 days in jail.

Some have asked whether the government’s measures are strict enough to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The government might impose a new and temporary crisis bill to increase their executive powers to make it easier to pass laws without asking parliament for permission first.

The proposal sparked a fierce debate in Norway (a country where coalition governments are the norm, not the exception, and where parliament historically has had a lot of power), with critics accusing the government of making dangerous precedent by setting aside democratic principles.

We’re not in lockdown like France and Spain - yet. However, we’re asked to stay at home as much as possible. As a result, people are turning to social media like never before. Facebook is flourishing with groups where people can offer and ask for help. Online events are being organised live streaming artists playing concerts and authors reading from their sofas. And every night at 6pm, we applaud the health workers working extra long hours to save lives.

CLICK HERE to catch up on The Local Norway's coronavirus coverage







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