(CN) – Facing an even bigger wave of death and sickness, Europe shut itself in on Wednesday and banned most travel into the European Union in a desperate bid to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and seal itself off from more contagion.
The unprecedented closing of the EU’s external borders for 30 days was agreed upon by state leaders on Tuesday evening. Non-EU citizens already were being turned back at airports and borders by Wednesday morning.
Simultaneously, Europe is taking emergency steps to prop up economies veering dangerously into a deep recession as nonessential businesses – everything from hairdressers to restaurants – are forced to close. Huge economic stimulus packages are being introduced across Europe, mostly to aid businesses but also workers. Economists warn the outbreak will lead to a string of bankruptcies, job losses and declining production. On Wednesday, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization said between 5.3 million and 24.7 million jobs worldwide may be lost due to the global pandemic.
Europe is using war-time language and martial-law-like measures to fight the virus, known as COVID-19, and quell the continent’s natural tendency to congregate in cafes, restaurants and churches and greet one another with kisses and embraces.
In the hardest-hit places, police are patrolling towns and cities to enforce lockdowns and they’re handing out fines for people violating curfews and restrictions on movement. In Italy, where the most draconian measures are in place, authorities said they’d issued more than 8,000 fines in the past day for scofflaws, most of whom were out and about without a good reason.
On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address that “we are at war.” His call to action is being echoed by other European leaders.
“I know that what I’m asking of you is unprecedented,” Macron said. “But the circumstances demand it. We are at war. Certainly in a health care war. We are not fighting an army, nor are we fighting another nation. But the enemy is here, elusive, it progresses. It thus requires a call to arms.”
The problem is many feel that Europe is entering this war unprepared after years of budget cuts to health care as governments were forced to reduce their public debt following the 2008 financial collapse and the Great Recession.
“I have heard from nurses — including those in the private sector — who say they go into war without weapons. Who go to work with knots in their stomachs,” Sabrina Ali Benali, an emergency medical doctor in France, told Euronews. She warned that there is a shortage of protective gear for medical staff who face being called upon to treat a mass of patients.
The crisis is also shaking confidence in the EU and its institutions and threatens to make deep-seated conflicts between richer and poorer countries in the bloc even more bitter. Already a sense that Italy has been abandoned by its European neighbors is taking root, and the closing of borders, hoarding of domestic supplies and an unwillingness to bail out bankrupt countries may test the spirit of camaraderie, solidarity and unity that is supposed to underwrite the EU — a unique multinational project to bring lasting peace between once-warring nations. In essence, though, the EU is more about trade and commerce and not designed to deal with an emergency of this scale.
European officials are bracing for a massive rise in infections and deaths across the continent similar to what Italy has suffered for the past month after numerous sick people were found in several northern towns of Lombardy and Veneto.
So far, 2,978 people have died from the respiratory disease in Italy and hundreds of more deaths are expected. On Wednesday, Italy reported 475 more deaths, which is more victims in a single day than even China reported during its outbreak in Hubei province. Still, officials have said they are “cautiously optimistic” because the number of new infections appears to be leveling off. Italy has been under a nationwide lockdown for eight days, but there are concerns the outbreak may move south into central and southern parts of the Italian peninsula.
Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, said the high rate of death in Italy may be related to the large numbers of elderly there. Italians live longer on average than any other European population and second only to Japanese.
“Italy has become a poster child for living to an old age,” Ryan said during a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday. Now, he said, Italy’s older population is paying a heavy toll from this disease.
But he added that the virus is a threat to younger people, too, and noted that 20% of those who died in South Korea were under 60.
“This isn’t just a disease of the elderly,” he said.
In Italy, the virus is overwhelming hospitals in the outbreak zones as bodies line up at crematoria, doctors and nurses fall ill and even die, and patients outnumber hospital beds. Doctors are even looking at using veterinarians’ ventilators on the sick because of shortages. Two town mayors have died, too.
In Val Seriana, near the city of Bergamo, people are describing scenes from a plague. The sound of ambulances carrying the sick and dying are heard throughout the day and night, and church bells toll for the dead relentlessly, Roberta Zaninoni, a woman from the area, said in an interview with Italian news agency ANSA.
“They died like pigs, like dogs,” Zaninoni said about how her father and others died amid a mass of sick people at a hospital.
Because of the restrictions on travel, she said she was unable to see her father and was provided information about the situation by a brother. Her family was told it was going to take two or three weeks before her father could be cremated because of the sheer number of dead.
“It’s a massacre, a war,” Zaninoni said.
She blamed the government for not doing more to contain the virus in her hometown. “Why did all the grandfathers, fathers have to die?”
She issued a warning to anyone who thinks the virus only kills old people with underlying health problems. She said the virus was killing healthy younger people, too.
On Wednesday, the president of Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, issued a stark warning that the region was on the verge of not being able to look after the sick.
“Unfortunately, the number of infected is not going down,” he said at a news conference. “Soon we will no longer be able to respond to people who get sick.”
He said even tougher restrictions might be necessary to keep people indoors to prevent further contagion. Patients are now being transferred to hospitals outside the hardest-hit and overwhelmed areas. Field hospitals are being erected to handle the avalanche of cases.
Spain is rapidly descending into its own nightmare with the number of deaths and infections growing exponentially there with Madrid as the epicenter. By Wednesday, Spain reported finding more than 13,700 infected people, a rapid increase in the past 10 days. Deaths are going up too, rising to 598.
The rest of Europe is not spared as the number of infections and victims continues to grow. The strategy now is to force people to stay indoors unless they must go to work or buy necessities, such as food and medicine.
France has imposed a nationwide lockdown and Germany, so far hesitant to force a similar lockdown, has closed borders, shut down schools and nonessential businesses, and told its citizens to avoid human contact. Poland, too, closed its border with Germany, leading to miles-long lines on Wednesday.
Lothar Wieler, the president of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, a lead health agency, is warning millions of people in Germany may become infected unless citizens obey the restrictions and avoid contact with other people. Scientists increasingly believe that the virus is spread mostly through contact with others.
“The epidemic is taking an exponential course,” Wieler told reporters in Berlin, where the German army is helping construct an emergency hospital to house 1,000 patients.
In the past day, Germany reported finding about 1,000 more people carrying the virus. So far, COVID-19 has killed 12 people in Germany, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has yet to force the country into a lockdown.
“The situation is serious. Please take it seriously. Since German unification, indeed since the Second World War, there has been no challenge to our nation that has demanded such a degree of common and united action,” Merkel said in a Wednesday televised address in an effort to rally Germans. It was her first emergency address since she became chancellor in 2005.
In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also called on citizens there to take the virus seriously. In a nod to the escalating danger posed by the virus, Johnson called for all schools in the United Kingdom to close on Friday. For now, he stopped short of imposing a lockdown. As elsewhere, the U.K. also reported a rise in infections and 32 more deaths on Wednesday, bringing the number of deaths to 104.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.