Coronavirus across Europe: An inside view into the developing crisis in different countries

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Coronavirus across Europe: An inside view into the developing crisis in different countries
Healthcare workers dealing with the new coronavirus crisis in Spain, applaud in return as they are cheered on by people outside "El Clinic" University Hospital in Barcelona on March 26, 2020. AFP

As the coronavirus pandemic accelerates across Europe The Local's journalists and contributors shed light on the current situation in their country and how things have changed.


'People seem to rationalise the situation instead of giving in to mass panic,' Helena Bachmann, Lake Geneva, Switzerland

Eleven days after the Federal Council declared a state of emergency in Switzerland, the number of cases is still climbing: nearly 12,000 infections are confirmed to date and 192 people have died.
Despite rumours that hospitals are overrun and there is shortage of life-saving equipment, health authorities insist that the situation is under control.
The general mood here is relatively calm, all things considered. The Swiss government, which has been monitoring mobile phone data to see whether the public is complying with coronavirus restrictions, reported that people are following the rules, including home confinement and the ban on groups of more than five people.
“We see a lot discipline and personal responsibility”, Health Minister Alain Berset said.
For now at least, more severe measures like curfews and 24-hour lockdowns seen in other countries will not be put in place.
While the uncertainty over the evolution of Covid-19 still persists, people seem to rationalise the situation instead of giving in to mass panic.
Major General of the Swiss Army Yvon Langel (L) attends a press conference wearing a face mask at the Pourtales Hospital in Neuchatel. AFP
This sense of composure may be, at least in part, due to the faith most Swiss have in their government. A recent survey shows that 63 percent of the population trust their authorities to take adequate measures against the spread of coronavirus.
With all shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment and leisure facilities shut down until April 19th, there is not much to do here besides walking, jogging, or bicycling.
In towns and villages around Lake Geneva, people still venture outdoors but are careful to keep distance from one another, often walking on the opposite sides of the street to avoid contact with each other.
Groceries and pharmacies remain open but have implemented distancing measures to avoid overcrowding.
A customer is given a number at the entrance and must await his turn to be let into the store. How many people will be allowed to be shopping at the same time depends on the store’s size.
All in all, life in Switzerland has slowed down considerably, but most people believe in the old adage — “this too shall pass”.

'Swedes and international residents can see that other countries are making other decisions,' Emma Löfgren, Stockholm, Sweden

Last week, I wrote in this column that Sweden was becoming an outlier in how it is dealing with the new coronavirus. Now it seems the rest of the world has noticed. I think I have to go back to the refugee crisis of 2015 to find as many international hot takes about Sweden as this week.

Is Sweden not implementing stricter restrictions on its people because they are horribly naive and complacent? Is it because decisions are generally made by expert authorities, rather than political ministers? Is it because they place a high premium on individual responsibility and trust? Are tougher rules not needed because people follow them anyway? Or are people still going out to restaurants, ski trips to the mountains, and hanging out with friends as usual?

The honest answer is that there’s a grain of truth in almost everything.

It’s also the slightly more boring answer, because it makes it harder to talk about Sweden as this peculiar country in the north where everything is either perfect paradise or a collapsing hellhole.

There are now stricter rules in place for bars and restaurants, and on Friday the government at the request of health authorities banned public gatherings of more than 50 people. But not much else has changed. 

Compare the Swedish guidelines to what the Danes were told by their government on Monday: "Cancel Easter lunch. Postpone family visits. Don't go sightseeing around the country.” The Swedish Public Health Agency's corresponding recommendation is: "Ahead of the breaks and Easter, it is important to consider whether planned travel in Sweden is necessary to carry out."

Morning traffic towards Stockholm is pictured on March 27, 2020 in Solna, near Stockholm, as many activities slowed down or came to a halt due to measures taken in order to combat the new coronavirus pandemic. AFP

Even the official recommendations leave a lot of room for interpretation. Should you think of them as typically bureaucratic Swedish understatements and assume that you are in fact expected to fall in line, or should you think that as long as there are no rules it’s a free-for-all? 

Swedes and international residents can see that other countries are making other decisions. The mixed messages seem to make people want to pick sides, dig their heels in, argue that in Sweden we have a system and it works; or no, Swedes think they know best but they don’t. 

I wish this crisis could bring us closer instead. Don’t talk down to people who are afraid that the wrong decisions are being made; they know just as much as you do. And don’t assume that people who trust the authorities to make these decisions are not just as afraid as you are. 

This is unknown territory for most of us. We need each other more than ever.

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

'You’d be hard pushed to see another human in public after 9pm,' Rachel Loxton, Berlin, Germany

Partygoers in Berlin used to queue for Berghain. Now the biggest queues are outside supermarkets where bouncers man the doors, letting in 10 or 15 people at a time, many desperate for their fix of toilet paper. 

It’s all part of Germany’s ban on social contact, which came into force at the start of the week.

It means we are not allowed to form gatherings of more than two people in public and we shouldn't leave our homes unless it’s essential.

Of course, it varies from state to state. I have friends in Bavaria where there’s a harsher lockdown, and in Berlin we have to carry proof of our address in case police question us. 

Since Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s in self-isolation after coming into contact with a doctor with coronavirus (although she’s tested negative twice), spelled out exactly what we have to do to slow down the pandemic, the atmosphere seems slightly calmer. 

People are definitely keeping their distance, the streets are quieter and you’d be hard pushed to see another human in public after 9pm. 

A woman, wearing a face mask, worn by many people during the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, cycles in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on March 26 2020, amidst the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. AFP

And yet when I see people flying kites or relaxing on the grass with a beer on Tempelhof airfield, I wonder if more restrictions will be imposed upon us. 

Compared to other countries, the death rate here is lower, although it’s growing.

As of Friday there were more than 44,400 confirmed cases and 270 deaths. A week ago 68 people had died. 

Authorities are carrying out mass testing and they say that’s one of the reasons why Germany has had so few deaths compared to the number of confirmed cases. 

But as Merkel said in her powerful televised speech last week, these are not just numbers, they are people’s grandparents, parents, sisters, brothers. 

So what is Berlin without its party buzz?

As we’re finding out, it’s still Berlin. Like other countries people have been cheering on their balconies for frontline workers, and every night at 7pm a saxophone player belts out Careless Whisper on my street.

And even though we have to queue at the door, the city’s beloved late shops (known as Spätis) are still open for emergency beer.

The message is getting through: stay in and have no social contact. But is all we’re doing enough? All we can do is wait and see.

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

'As I walk around the block to get my toddler to sleep, people step off the pavement to keep their distance', Emma Firth, Copenhagen, Denmark

It was one month ago today that the first Dane tested positive for the coronavirus. It was thought then that the risk of widespread infection was low. How different things are now; 41 deaths linked to the coronavirus in Denmark and 1,851 people who have tested positive. 

Now Denmark is heading into week three of lockdown. As we overtake the initial two-week bar that was set, we know this will be the way of life until at least April 13th– the new date the government set this week. But there is no sign of any let-up.

Over the weekend the Danish National Police started to text every mobile user in the country to remind them to keep to social distancing.

The government announced plans to double or even quadruple the punishment for coronavirus-related crimes.

And an Easter message came in the warning of not to visit any family or friends during the long weekend of påske.

But there is a fine line to tread in cranking up restrictions.  Earlier this week the Danish Patient Safety Authority set up a secure email for people to report anyone suspected of being infected with the coronavirus. It was soon taken down after backlash that it was an infringement of human rights.

A picture taken on March 24, 2020 shows a view of the empty terminal 3 at Copenhagen Airport Kastrup, where activities are limited due to the novel coronavirus. Ida Guldbaek Arentsen / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP

After two weeks, lockdown life is no longer new, yet it is still not normal and it is certainly not easy.

The sun has shone every day this week in Copenhagen, yet we have to be careful how we enjoy it.

In my courtyard, people take a break from work and sit drinking coffee in the sun but no one is near each other. As I walk around the block to get my toddler to sleep, people step off the pavement to keep their distance. 

But there are smiles, as everyone acknowledges what we are doing in these very strange times. I have probably got to recognise my neighbours more than I ever have, through a ‘god dag’ at a distance. People are all doing their bit, knowing it will make a difference.

Already this week, Denmark's Statens Serum Institut said it estimated that the tough lockdown could cut the rate the coronavirus spreads in the country by as much as half. Welcome news as we enter the next phase of lockdown of no doubt groundhog day.

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

'One Norwegian was fined €1,700 for going to a party', Stine G. Bergo, freelance journalist, Oslo, Norway

I visited my mum last night. We’d both been in quarantine and hadn’t seen each other for over two weeks. We didn’t hug. And, after weeks with nearly no physical contact (except for the occasional hug with my roommates), it didn’t seem that strange. 

The streets of Oslo are emptier now than just a few days ago. It might be the grey weather, but people seem to be taking social distancing more seriously. Perhaps the news story about a 23-year-old man being fined 20.000 NOK (€1.700) for going to a party when he was supposed to be in quarantine had something to do with it. 

Norwegian people have been inventing new words reflecting our current coronavirus dominated reality.

“Quarantine body” (karantenekropp) is the dreaded shape Norwegians fear will be theirs after all the gyms were closed to contain the spread of the virus. However we’re told to stay fit and healthy, so joggers are jogging like never before and PT’s are whipping people’s butts online.

There’s also “wine chat” and “virtual Friday beer” (pretty self-explanatory). There is “loo roll shame” (dorullskam) as well as “cabin shame” hytteskam - to be used on those who fled the cities to their countryside holiday cabins, an offence now punishable by prison. The loo roll and cabin shamed can now call the “anger telephone” created for corona-frustration only to take some of the pressure off emergency lines and national helplines.  

Anna Nohr invited neighbors to take part in a fun backyard quiz in Oslo, Norway on March 23, 2020 as all have to stay home due to the new coronavirus COVID-19. AFP

Fifteen people have so far died of COVID-19 in Norway and 269 are in hospital. A total of 3,158 cases have been confirmed, but the number is arguably much higher as Norway doesn’t test everyone with symptoms. 

Lots of businesses, big and small, are feeling the negative financial impact of the crisis. The government has vowed to financially support the businesses worst affected. The extreme measures taken have been extended to outlast Easter. It seems unlikely that things will go back to normal (or more normal) before that.

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

'At least things don't seem to be getting worse', Clare Speak, Bari, southern Italy

Week three under quarantine in Italy promised to be a weird one from the start. I opened my shutters on Tuesday morning to see thick flakes of snow falling here in Bari, after weeks of sunshine. I went shivering onto the balcony to make sure it wasn't a quarantine-induced hallucination.

Since then we've had hail, rain, wind, sunshine, and more snow. I can't decide if it makes being stuck indoors better or worse, but the weather at least fits the mood. We're all uneasy, and we get collectively more anxious every day at the same time, just before the announcement of the latest death toll and confirmed case numbers at 6pm. Everyone's looking for a break in the clouds, some evidence that things might get better soon and that quarantine measures have worked as they should.

The number of infections had steadily dropped for four days earlier this week, giving a bit of hope until it rose again on Thursday. No one expects improvements to run in a perfectly straight line, and the fluctuations are getting less dramatic. But it's still hard to know what to think.

Medical staff and Antonio Tonarelli (C), logistic director of the construction of a 6500sqm field hospital in the premises of the Bergamo Fair, talk on March 27, 2020. AFP

There have been more deaths in southern cities this week, and authorities themselves say the real number of infections in Italy could be ten times higher than their own official figure, which is now over 80,000.

We don't know how long quarantine will go on for, either. Despite saying over a week ago that the measures “will be extended” past April 3rd, the Italian prime minister has yet to give us our new expected release date.

Everyday life remains tedious. Stretching out your food supply to avoid the supermarket run for one more day, printing out yet another new, more complicated version of the self-declaration form, washing your hands again, standing on the balcony, staring at weather. We no longer really care about not being able to go for a coffee or a run, but we're very uneasy about the bigger picture.

Are things getting better here, or aren't they? The best I can say for now is that they no longer seem to be getting much worse.

CLICK HERE to read The Local Italy's coronavirus coverage

Emma Pearson, Paris, France

As France moves through its second week of lockdown it feels like things have got serious.
In the last week the death toll has shot up, with more than 300 people dying on Thursday. Although we hope we will never see the sort of mortality figures that Italy has reported, health chiefs cannot rule it out and say the disease in France has not yet peaked.
These grim figures combined with an increasingly strict approach from authorities means that the lockdown is now taken much more seriously and the streets of even the biggest cities are largely deserted.
Police handed out 90,000 fines in the first week of lockdown and we now have a new, more detailed, form to fill out every time we leave our homes.
From looking for loopholes, the vast majority of people now seem to accept that the rules are necessary and now social media is full of tips for home workouts, virtual museum tours and binge-worthy boxsets - as well as the ever-popular 'apéro Skype' or online drinks and chat with friends.
The deserted A5 motorway in France. AFP
How long will all this last?
Well that is the question on everyone's lips. No-one is in doubt that the initial 15-day lockdown brought in on March 17th  will be extended, but so far there has been no official word on how long for. The government's specialist scientific council has recommended a six-week lockdown.
The other issue that everyone is watching nervously is how hospitals are coping. At present the health system seems to be - just about - managing, thanks in part to a new military hospital and a major operation to transfer patients out of the worst-affected areas in the east of the country.
Whether this will be enough remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure, those who are on the front line have a courage almost beyond imagine - one French gendarme and five doctors have already died of the virus.
I will be joining the rest of the country in clapping my heart out for these people every night at 8pm.

'One scientist told me the outbreak will only reach its peak in three weeks in Spain. Chilling,' Graham Keeley, Barcelona, Spain

We are nearly two weeks into the lockdown in Spain and yesterday I started to feel awful.

The dread fear that I might be coming down with the virus was at the back of my mind.

So I checked the symptoms for Covid-19 – fever, difficulty breathing, coughing. Thankfully, it seemed more like a chill coming on as well as a blinding headache.

How many people, I wondered, had had the same experience – only to find out later that they tested positive for coronavirus.

Worse still, if I was coming down with the virus, it would probably mean the whole household would suffer the same fate too. Imagine. It must be happening to tens of thousands of people. So far I don't know any friends or relatives with the virus, but it will not be long. 

As I write, more than 4,300 people have lost their lives and 56,786 have been diagnosed with coronavirus in Spain.

This was the week when figures showed more people died from the illness here than in China. It is a shocking fact when you think that less than a month ago, the pathogen was something which seemed to be isolated in the Far East. Perhaps that was naïve.

Healthcare workers dealing with the new coronavirus crisis applaud in return as they are cheered on by local police, Civil Guard and other security forces outside the University Hospital in Coruna, northwestern Spain, on March 26, 2020.AFP

A political row has blown up over whether the Spanish government acted fast enough. Should they have acted earlier to ban huge marches for international women's day and political rallies?

Arancha González Laya, the foreign minister, insisted the government acted on scientific advice in an interview with The Guardian.

Reading this I could not help wonder whether scientific advice is one thing and common sense is another. The virus was ravaging northern Italy by this stage.

Anyway, perhaps what is important is what Spain should do now.

Doctors I have spoken to this week have said the government must enforce a total lockdown.

They are working on the front line in intensive care units and are aghast that some people seem to be going about their normal work as if nothing was happening.

One told me the outbreak will only reach its peak in three weeks in Spain. Chilling.

I hope they are wrong.

CLICK HERE to read The Local Spain's coronavirus coverage





Comments (2)

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Anonymous 2020/03/30 03:50
Interesting read. My husband and I are wintering in the USA and need to return to Sweden soon before health insurance runs out. It’s been fascinating to read that Sweden is still fairly “open”. We are hoping SAS continues to fly to Stockholm from Newark. We also hope we don’t land in a huge virus explosion in Stockholm caused by not locking down, because we think this will be happening in the US. Watch this space.
Anonymous 2020/03/29 11:07
Best article so far, at least for Swedish readers. Now I can easily compare the regulations in each country and make an informed decision instead of waiting every day for Sweden to change its policy.

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