Europe Fights Invisible Enemy 75 Years After Fall of Nazi Germany

Europe observed the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II with quiet wreath-laying ceremonies instead of big celebrations as the continent battles the coronavirus pandemic.

The Red Arrows, officially known as the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, flies over Buckingham Palace in London on Friday, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

(CN) – Friday marked the 75th anniversary of the surrender of the Nazi regime but instead of mass celebrations and touching scenes of elderly World War II survivors being feted, the old capitals of Europe – London, Paris and Moscow – found themselves combating a new enemy that’s left squares and boulevards empty of people and parades and citizens hunkering inside homes.

The coronavirus pandemic muted commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the bloodiest conflict in history and one that left Europe in ruins.

The occasion was marked by quiet wreath-laying ceremonies. In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron lit the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Arc de Triomphe. In London, a military flyover and a nationwide two-minute silence marked the end of the war. In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel laid a wreath at the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny.

Instead of rejoicing the end of that horrific war, Europe is fighting a new invisible enemy as it desperately tries to contain the novel coronavirus. Many leaders, including Macron and Merkel, have called the virus the biggest challenge facing the continent since the end of the war.

In little more than two months, the pandemic has shattered Europe’s economies, strained its politics, drained its public treasuries and left its future murky.

And the dead keep mounting: More than 150,000 people in Europe have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, which first emerged in China last December. More than 1.4 million Europeans have tested positive. But deaths and new infections are declining in much of Europe and severe lockdowns are slowly being lifted.

Still, death tolls remain staggering. On Friday, the United Kingdom reported 626 new deaths, bringing its official toll to more than 31,000, the highest in Europe. The other hardest-hit countries – France, Spain and Italy – each reported more than 200 new deaths.

As the wave of death in Western Europe subsides, the virus now is hitting Russia with ferocity. In an eerie repeat of what happened in Western Europe, Russia is reporting troubling statistics with about 10,000 new infections a day. Russia has reported 187,859 total infections – the fifth highest in the world – and 1,723 deaths.

“Russia has experienced a delayed beginning to the epidemic,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, during a news briefing Friday.

French President Emmanuel Macron lays a wreath of flowers during a ceremony in Paris on Friday. (Charles Platiau/Pool via AP)

He said Russia has increased testing and that is one reason for the spike in confirmed cases. He also said “the disease is clearly having an impact” and in response “the government has shifted its approach.”

He said Russia, like other countries, has struggled to track down potential carriers of the virus through what is known as contact tracing. That involves finding people and testing those who were in contact with someone infected.

“Once you reach intense community transmission it becomes very difficult to do surveillance, contact tracing,” Ryan said. “For Russia and other countries in Europe, once you get behind the curve” the only options available are lockdowns, he said.

Instead of calling it a lockdown, Russian President Vladimir Putin imposed what has been called a nonworking period. That is to last until at least Monday, though it may be extended. In Moscow, where the vast majority of the infections have been found, a lockdown has been imposed until the end of May.

Russia may have very dark days ahead of it indeed. Similar to the United Kingdom, it was hesitant to impose a lockdown and then its prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, announced he had tested positive. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also fell ill with Covid-19 and his government has been accused of bungling the response to the pandemic.

This major outbreak in Russia is a serious challenge for a country with a weak health care system and high levels of poverty. At the same time, economic sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a drop in oil prices is hurting the Russian economy, which relies heavily on oil and gas exports.

Victory Day celebrations on Saturday were supposed to be a moment of great pomp and meaning for Putin. But the big showcase was canceled because of the pandemic.

A military parade with 15,000 troops marching through Moscow’s Red Square was planned and Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Macron, the French president, were scheduled to attend. Instead, Putin will lay flowers at a war memorial near the Red Square, military jets will fly overhead and fireworks will burst over a city with empty streets.

Victory Day is a major event in Russia even on less significant dates than the 75th anniversary. By the time all combat came to an end at midnight on May 8, 1945, the Soviet Union had lost 27 million citizens and half of the dead were civilians.

Traditionally, millions of people participate in what’s called the Immortal Regiment, parades on Victory Day where people walk with portraits of relatives who fought in World War II. This year, though, it will be taking place online.

The pandemic and economic collapse is hurting Putin, whose approval ratings have slid. According to independent pollster Levada, his approval fell to a historic low of 59% last month from 63% in March, according to The Moscow Times newspaper.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a wreath-laying ceremony in Berlin on Friday. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters via AP)

Putin has praised his country’s response and claimed fatalities are low because of mass testing. Those numbers are being questioned by critics who say Russian officials may be undercounting deaths.

“This is the first time in 20 years that Putin is facing a crisis this serious,” political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya told AFP, a French news agency. “This is a new experience for him.”

In Western Europe, meanwhile, countries are eager to lift restrictions and get economies revived after weeks of lockdown.

Switzerland is looking at opening its borders to neighboring countries and pressure is mounting on Germany to do the same as the number of infections declines.

“After more than seven weeks, there must be an end to wire fences and tollgates in the heart of Europe,” a group of German politicians with Merkel’s Conservative Party wrote in a letter demanding the government open borders.

But it is far too soon for the rest of Europe to feel at ease as there are serious risks the virus will resurface after countries lift lockdowns. There already are some warning signs.

This week, Portugal, a country not hit particularly hard by the virus and where officials hoped they had suppressed it, reported a spike in cases.

In recent days, Portugal has found the number of cases rising and it reported 553 new cases on Friday. On May 2, a six-week state of emergency was lifted and this week stores were reopened. But people reportedly defied lockdown orders, for instance by heading to beaches.

“We cannot let our guard down,” said Portugal’s Health Department Director Graça Freitas. “Where there has been a relaxation of the physical distancing measures, of prevention and control measures, new clusters of the disease emerge.”

As in the United States, there have been recent outbreaks in meat-processing plants. At a facility in Azambuja, Portugal, more than 100 workers tested positive. In Germany, an outbreak was discovered at a meat-processing plant near the western German city of Münster. Officials said at least 129 out of 200 employees tested positive and 13 workers were hospitalized. The plant has been shut down while all 1,200 employees are tested.


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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