(CN) — The European Union said Monday it wants to block nonessential travelers from entering the bloc as restrictions on movement and gatherings tightened across a continent finding itself unprepared for a global pandemic and struggling to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
Europe is now the epicenter of the pandemic and its governments are bracing for what Italy is dealing with — a tsunami of infections and critically ill people swamping hospitals with the contagious respiratory disease known as COVID-19.
The number of deaths continues to rise in Europe with more than 2,600 deaths linked to the virus. By Monday, Italy reported 349 more deaths bringing its total to 2,158 while several other countries — including Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands — are also reporting an uptick in deaths and infections.
The virus is spread through droplets emitted when a person coughs and sneezes. It can be picked up on surfaces too, such as on a handrail or cardboard. For these reasons, European leaders are telling their citizens to avoid large gatherings, stay at home as much as possible and wash their hands frequently.
On Sunday, Holland and Slovakia joined Italy and Spain in imposing nationwide lockdowns on movement and businesses and more countries are expected to follow. By Monday, Germany had partially closed its borders, France was considering a nationwide lockdown too and Romania declared a state of emergency.
In northern Italy, the worst-hit region of Europe, hospitals warned they were on the brink of running out of beds, ventilators and critical equipment such as protective masks. Italian military medics were dispatched to the hard-hit region and an emergency hospital was under construction in Milan.
Sweeping measures to keep people inside their homes and closing borders has become Europe’s chief response. The idea is that by preventing the spread of the virus, fewer people can get sick and medical facilities are not overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, scientists are working on antiviral medicine to treat the sickness and laboratories have begun crucial work on vaccines. But experts say it will be months before a vaccine is available.
In the United Kingdom, government experts are warning that the outbreak could last months and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told vulnerable people to avoid social contact for 12 weeks.
On Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she was asking European countries to impose a 30-day ban on travel into the EU for nonessential travelers. She said the ban could be extended. She stressed that the flow of goods into the EU would not be interrupted and proposed some goods should be fast-tracked into the bloc, such as medical supplies and perishable foods.
“The less travel, the more we can contain the virus,” von der Leyen said. “We need to do more to reduce the huge pressure on our health care system.”
The proposal to ban travel from outside the EU comes after U.S. President Donald Trump banned Europeans from entering the U.S. last week.
Air France-KLM said it was grounding nearly its entire fleet over the next two months due to decreased demand and Ben Smith, its CEO, announced he is cutting his salary by 25% to help save costs. Other European airlines, such as budget carrier Ryanair, are largely grounded too as travel grinds to a halt.
Internally, the EU is shutting down too. On Sunday, the Dutch were surprised to hear their government announce a lockdown only a half hour before it went into effect in the evening. The government ordered schools, bars, restaurants, gyms and coffee shops to close. The announcement immediately led to long lines at the country’s coffee shops, where people can buy cannabis and hashish legally.
It also came as a jolt for many Dutch whose day-to-day lives were suddenly altered. The country has reported 20 deaths and 1,135 infections.
“It’s a bit mad. We only found out last night that apparently we will be homeschooling now,” said Susan van Dorpe, a mother of three children.
“We had a meeting this morning about what we would do,” said primary school teacher Janneke Smits. “We have today and tomorrow to plan, then the children can collect their books from the school and we don’t know when we will see them again.”
As elsewhere in Europe, the Dutch are being told to avoid shaking hands, keep space between themselves and others and wash their hands frequently.
“When you walk through the city, it’s incredibly quiet. I see people keeping their distance,” Health Minister Bruno Bruins said Monday.
In another sign of just how serious the pandemic has become for a peaceful and quiet country like the Netherlands, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte delivered an address to the nation, the first by a head of state in the Netherlands since the 1970s oil crisis.
The pandemic has caught Europe off-guard and exposed its unpreparedness for a widespread outbreak.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said Monday the pandemic showed the shortcomings of “lean and mean” health care systems in wealthier countries that have come to value efficiency.
“Efficiency is good in normal times, efficiency is good when things are predictable, but efficiency will not really work for surprises,” he said at a news conference in Geneva. “Globally, we have a very serious weakness in terms of preparedness.”
Tedros said rich countries are finding it hard to ramp up their efforts to fight the outbreak, but he said the world is coming together and making progress on scaling up production of the equipment and medicine needed for this emergency.
He added that the WHO remains very concerned about the virus spreading in poorer countries with fewer resources where populations are suffering from HIV infection and malnutrition. So far, COVID-19 has not spread widely in Africa.
His message for Europe and the rest of the world was to continue sweeping measures to contain the spread of the virus.
“The containment strategy is showing hope,” he said in a nod to efforts by China, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore that stopped the spread of infection. “We believe this virus is controllable. The outcome is in our hands.”
Courthouse News reporters Cain Burdeau and Molly Quell are based in Italy and the Netherlands, respectively.