Coronavirus across Europe: An inside view as Europeans search for signs of hope

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Coronavirus across Europe: An inside view as Europeans search for signs of hope
Srasse, a touristic hotspot of the German capital, on April 3, 2020, amid the new coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic. AFP

The Local's journalists and contributors from around Europe tell the story of how each country is coping with the pandemic and whether there's any light at the end of the tunnel.


'Many chose to follow the guidelines, others do not', Emma Löfgren, Stockholm, Sweden
Sweden has introduced a new set of guidelines that come much closer to social distancing than anything authorities have suggested before. Many of the complaints from international residents so far have been about a lack of clarity, so perhaps this will go some way towards achieving that.
The guidelines lay bare a peculiar feature in Swedish legislation. They are legally binding in the sense that they are based on the law on communicable diseases, which states that “each and everyone” shall take “reasonable precautions to contribute to preventing the spread of infectious diseases”. If you don’t do that, even as an individual, you are breaking the law…

… but in most cases you won’t be punished. There are no sanctions associated with not following the health authorities’ guidelines. It reminds me of a lot of rules in Swedish life, in politics or the labour market, which are often enforced not by law but by social convention

In my supermarket, they have now placed markers on the floor for customers to stand at least a metre and a half apart. Some were respecting those markers earlier this week, others were not.

While international coverage of Sweden sometimes tends to focus on a stereotypical image of the country as a middle-class, homogeneous world where everyone looks the same, acts the same and are socially distant by nature, you only need to live here to know it is not the case. 

Many choose to follow the guidelines, others do not. And some don’t have the luxury of choice.

In Stockholm, the city worst affected, concerns have been raised of the virus spreading in elderly care homes, but also in vulnerable suburbs, where many live with several generations of family members in the same apartment, are not able to work from home, and simply don’t have the option of social distancing. Is the virus revealing a class divide that Sweden prefers to hope does not exist?

We thought spring was here, but this morning it snowed. The winter isn’t over yet.

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'The initial political unity has now quickly evaporated,' Graham Keeley, Barcelona, Spain

A man came to our house this week and – at a distance – took delivery of a child's snorkelling mask. 

It was for a collection for the local hospital where they are being used to help people breath and, you hope, to survive. This kind of thing is happening across Spain. 

Almost three weeks into the lockdown, there is sense here that this is how life is going to be for the foreseeable future. 

The government has hinted that the state of emergency will be extended until the end of April at least and this is likely to be confirmed in the next few days.

After a miserable few days of cold and rain which has meant we were locked indoors, Spring has finally arrived. The good weather might be the biggest test of Spaniards' ability to abide by the strict restrictions.

I read a survey which said most of Spain's 47 million inhabitants live in flats measuring 60m2. Being stuck inside may prove tough. 

Things have been difficult enough this week as Spain reached the grim milestone of 10,000 deaths from the virus. 

A glance backwards and it was only on 31st January, that the country reported its first death. Two months later and here we are. Hard to take in. 

The initial political unity which existed when the epidemic first hit has now quickly evaporated. 

Pablo Casado, the leader of the conservative People's Party, accused PM Pedro Sánchez of “dealing with this crisis with a cocktail of arrogance, incompetence and lies”.

Away from this politicking, one thing that seems certain is as in other countries, Spain's government is struggling to get enough people tested or provide enough beds to treat the ill. 

However, another thing which is also clear is that the daily death toll may not be the real picture. 

An epidemiologist told me that many of the people who have died are elderly and probably had existing health problems. 

This means they did not necessarily die because of the virus but they also had the virus at the time they passed away. It has meant that the figures are much higher.

The expert also said Spain cannot lower its guard and relax the restrictions until there is a substantial decrease in new cases. 

Sadly, this seems far away. 

Click here for The Local Spain's latest articles

'With many families going without basic necessities, the situation is becoming desperate' Clare Speak, Bari, Italy

After three weeks, we're all getting used to our mundane daily lives at home under lockdown. It doesn't quite feel normal, but it no longer feels so strange. 

I don't think about the fact that I can't go out for a coffee, or for a run, or really leave the house at all. Instead of exploring the city I now spend most of my free time baking, which I used to hate. Now it calms me down. And I'm not the only one, if the sudden shortage of flour and yeast in the supermarkets is anything to go by.

We'd all hoped that quarantine would be nearly over in Italy by now. Today, April 3rd, was the original deadline. But the government on Wednesday announced the current rules would stay in place until mid-April at least.

The data shows the contagion is slowing, but health officials warn there could always be another wave – the big fear is of a major outbreak here in the poorer south, where hospitals wouldn't cope.

As well as hospitals struggling for funding, countless families are in financial trouble after millions of people lost their incomes to the shutdown. With many now going without basic necessities, the situation is becoming desperate. Everyone's very anxious to get back to work.

But it won't happen soon. We'll get back to normal very gradually, prime minister Giuseppe Conte said. Announcing the extension, he said we may soon be entering “phase two” - that of “coexistence with the virus”, which I don't much like the sound of – and then “phase three”, restoring normality. It all sounds very sensible, but obviously this means we're not even out of phrase one yet. 

Conte apologised for putting us all under lockdown over the Easter holidays, usually a time for big family gatherings and feasting here. But at this point, we're expecting at least some restrictions to still be in place by summer. We're settling in for the long haul. What else is there to do?

Click here for The Local Italy's latest articles

'There is a glimmer of hope the tough lockdown is paying off,' Emma Firth, Copenhagen, Denmark

It’s been 23 days since the Danish prime minister told the country it would go into lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Three weeks on, everything is still shut (except shops selling food and pharmacies), social distancing has become a norm and people are digging deep to cope with isolation or the childcare/work/life juggle.

But this week brought a glimmer of hope that the quick and tough lockdown strategy is paying off. After Easter, ten days from now, there could be a “gradual, quiet and controlled opening,” of society if people adhere to lockdown advice and if infection rates of coronavirus look stable.

It was the most positive press conference from prime minister Mette Frederiksen since the lockdown started. There may even been some church services on Easter Day.

It was hugely welcome news, as lockdown life is not easy for anyone.

Earlier in the week my neighbour told me how he and his wife were working 14-hour days, to get both their jobs done, while home-schooling their 7 year-old and entertaining their two-year old. But after the positive press conference and no further restrictions, he was taking his family to a summer house to ride out the rest of lockdown, away from the city and apartment living.

Although cases and deaths linked to the coronavirus are still increasing, it is slowing down. On Thursday, 525 patients were in hospital with coronavirus in Denmark, ten fewer than on Wednesday. 

There have been at least 139 deaths linked to the coronavirus in total while 3,355 people have tested positive for the virus after 26,776 tests, according to Statens Serum Institute. Tests will soon be extended to those with mild symptoms, it was also announced this week.

The hope is that people still adhere to advice as we head into another sunny weekend and with Easter on the horizon.

Outdoor life can still be enjoyed, while keeping a distance from others and there’s no doubt this is helping people. I have never seen so many runners in my neighbourhood. And there is still a strong sense of community. Every morning, there is “morgensang” on the channel DR1, getting people to start the day with a stretch and Danish songs. It’s a real reminder of the country’s togetherness.

Click here for The Local Denmark's latest articles

'You know you're in unprecedented times, when France abandons its love affair with paper forms', Emma Pearson, Paris France.

In a week of fairly grim news from France - steadily rising death tolls with 400-500 people dying every day - there was one detail that particularly struck me, the requisition of part of the famous Rungis food market in Paris to store bodies.

But once you move past the initial visceral horror at this idea, it's another example of the massive emergency operation that the French government is running.
France in general runs a highly centralised system with the state heavily involved in most aspects of life, and at this time of crisis we are really seeing that in action.
There is currently a massive patient transfer operation going on to relieve overwhelmed hospitals in Paris and eastern France, with patients being airlifted abroad or sent to other regions of France and abroad in specially converted TGV trains.
This kind of logistical planning, plus heroic efforts from medical staff on the ground, means that French hospitals are, for the moment, coping. But with over 6,000 patients in intensive care last night, the situation is unlikely to ease in the immediate future.
And it's only once the death toll has significantly fallen and pressure on hospitals eased that the government will even begin to think about easing its strict lockdown restrictions.
The current end date for lockdown is April 15th, but Prime Minister Edouard Philippe says this is highly likely to be extended again as the government sets up a working group to look at options around gradually easing the restrictions for certain regions or certain age groups as we move into the summer.
One bit of good news though - from Monday the paper permission form that everyone needs for every trip out of their home will be available as a download that can be displayed on smartphones.
The surest sign yet that we are moving into unprecedented times - when France abandons its love affair with the paper form.
'This will not be a normal easter in Norway', Stine Bergo, Oslo, Norway

Easter holiday is a big annual event in Norway. B-I-G. Every street in every city is usually completely empty, and not because of the coronavirus, but because most Norwegians have stuffed their kids, skis and lots of Easter candy into their cars and headed off to their cabins in the snowy mountains.

“This will not be a normal Easter,” the Minister of Justice and Deputy announced yesterday. Norwegians are banned from going to their hytte (cabins). It is, what some would call, a national identity crisis. 

Last week I mentioned new Norwegian words that have appeared since the beginning of the corona crisis. I forgot to mention an important one, brakkesyke. Brakke means barracks and syke means illness, and brakkesyke indicates that you are sick of being home.

Common symptoms are manically staring out the window, rearranging the furniture in your tiny bedroom for the sixth time in three weeks and filling your Instagram feed with pictures of your newly baked sourdough bread. Brakkesyke has become the new check-in word (over Zoom, Skype or Messenger). “Do you have brakkesyke?”, “Yes, I feel the brakkesyke kicking in today.” 

Don’t get me wrong, brakkesyke is the least we should be worried about right now.

Three weeks have passed since the Norwegian government made the first drastic measures to tackle the epidemic. Many have been temporarily laid off work (and receive financial aid by the state) and 10,7 percent of the Norwegian workforce are currently unemployed – the highest number since the second world war. 

On the bright side, the epidemic curve is flattening, with a halt in the growth of the number of people being admitted to the hospital every day.

Fifty-one people have died from the coronavirus so far, 309 people are in hospital and 5209 people have been confirmed contaminated.

Health workers are concerned over lack of protective equipment and many hospitals are reaching the limit of their intensive care capacity. The state channel NRK wrote this week that Norway had only 248 intensive care beds at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. Even for a country that only numbers some 5 million people, that’s not a lot.

Despite brakkesyke, the government urges people to not forget about the importance of social distancing to keep the epidemic curve from rising.

Click here for the latest articles on The Local Norway

'No one knows what April will bring, but Germany seems better prepared for the unknown', Rachel Stern, Berlin Germany

As of Friday morning, Germany had more confirmed coronavirus cases than China, or 84,794, making it the fifth most affected country in the world. There have also been more than 1,100 deaths, with increasingly more cases being reported in senior residences

It’s hard to believe that only a month ago the country was reporting just over 100 cases, largely spread by travellers returning from ski holidays, or within business communities. There had not yet been any fatalities. 

At that point, it was still a shock to many when large events were cancelled, or restaurants reduced their hours.  

Yet not many things catch Germans by surprise anymore. For two weeks, all 16 states have abided by strict social distancing measures, only allowing groups of two people who aren’t family members to be together outside

This week, states such as Berlin and Hesse announced steep fines for breaking the rules, which also call on people to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres, and only leave their homes for essential reasons such as grocery shopping and exercise. 

Once hectic shopping streets and popular parks are increasingly empty, with more people donning face masks - often handmade ones stitched together with colourful cloth. On Tuesday, the eastern city of Jena became the first in Germany to enforce the masks, sparking a nationwide debate on their usefulness. 

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for public health said on Thursday that anyone who wears one could prevent passing on the pathogen to others.

Now Germany is trying to act fast to reduce the rate of infections - whether by doubling hospital bed capacity or developing a smartphone app to alert people if they were in contact with an infected person. The current measures are “slowing the spread,” said the RKI on Friday, adding that restrictions on public life need to be maintained.

No one quite knows what April will bring, but Germany - and its residents - seem better prepared for the unknown.

Click here to read The Local Germany's latest articles

'The likelihood that normal life in Switzerland will resume in two weeks is “an illusion”,' Helena Bachmann, Lake Geneva, Switzerland

The other day, I decided to take a quick drive to the nearest ATM machine. As soon as I got there, masked and gloved, I heard a siren. An ambulance stopped on the opposite side of the street.

I don’t know whether it was responding to a coronavirus patient, but this was an eerie scene nevertheless, reflecting the strange times we live in.

There are occasional reports of people starting to venture outside and even congregating in groups. But I have not witnessed this. On the contrary, the streets of the small town where I live, which are usually busy with shoppers, are nearly empty.

This is our ‘new normal’.

It’s been nearly three weeks since the Federal Council declared a state of emergency in Switzerland, and many of those who have been confined since March 16th, myself included, are developing a serious case of ‘cabin fever’.

It was relatively easy to stay indoors when the weather was cool and rainy. But as days are getting warmer and sunnier, the great outdoors beckons. Yet, because this status quo is supposed to last until April 19th at the earliest, the blossoming nature outside our windows is beyond our grasp.

However, the April 19th deadline that the government set when it declared a state of emergency is a moving target.

Even though the number of infections is finally slowing down—thanks to the very disciplined and responsible population — the likelihood that normal life will resume in two weeks is “an illusion”, Health Minister Alain Berset said.

What makes the current situation even more disturbing is the uncertainty about what happens next — and when.

Depending on which Swiss ‘expert’ you listen to, things are either looking up, or we haven’t yet seen the worst of this pandemic.

The good news is that despite early fears of overcrowding and shortage of lifesaving equipment, Switzerland’s health care system has proven to be robust and has, so far at least, weathered this unprecedented crisis with flying colours.

These little bits and pieces of happy news emerging amid the pandemic give all of us a glimmer of hope for the future.

Click here to read the latest articles on The Local Switzerland



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