Virus Slows in European Union, but Rages Outside Its Borders

Some of the EU’s biggest and most volatile neighbors are in the midst of worsening coronavirus outbreaks that could bring about political instability.  

A worker disinfects the roof terrace of the Atlantic hotel in Rome on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(CN) – Countries in the Europe Union are slowly easing lockdowns with public officials hopeful the coronavirus pandemic is coming under control, but the virus and unrest now spreads at the bloc’s periphery in Russia, Turkey, Lebanon and North Africa, posing new threats to a badly damaged Europe.

Western Europe has been the epicenter of the pandemic since an outbreak was discovered in northern Italy around Feb. 23. Since then, more than 100,000 people have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain and France, the hardest-hit countries in Europe.

Two months later, the EU finds itself in a crisis where its politics have been rattled, its economies plunged into recession and its societies rocked by rising unemployment, anger and anxiety about the future. Still, the hope is that the worst is over and European leaders are now looking toward a slow recovery.

But a new set of pressures and uncertainties are appearing as the virus spreads into the larger region around Europe and begins to upend life in much more unstable countries at the periphery of the EU. Major outbreaks in these nations pose many risks, including political instability, uprisings, conflict and mass emigration.

“For the European states, it has been a mess,” said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European and international studies at King’s College London, in a telephone interview. “They will hopefully get through this without health systems tanking. But the problem is that you then face a situation where you are surrounded by much poorer and more unstable countries with much weaker health systems that are facing potential economic and social collapse.”

He added: “You just saw this in the last three days in Lebanon as one example.”

In recent days, Lebanon’s second-largest city of Tripoli has been rocked by riots and clashes between protesters launching Molotov cocktails and police and soldiers firing live rounds and using tear gas. The clashes left a 26-year-old man dead and many injured.

A police car set on fire by anti-government protesters burns in Tripoli, Lebanon, on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Demonstrators in Tripoli, Beirut and elsewhere accuse the government of entrenched corruption and blame it for causing an economic crisis that’s only deepened since a lockdown was imposed to contain the coronavirus. The country’s currency has collapsed, wiping out savings and leading to soaring prices. Banks and ATMs have been attacked and set ablaze. Protesters shout: “It’s better to die from Covid-19 than hunger.”

“The one that really scares the Europeans is Egypt,” Clarkson said. “Because if that collapses, that’s a hundred million people.”

The virus has begun to spread faster in Egypt, the African country with the most coronavirus infections with 5,268 cases and 380 deaths. To contain the virus, it has closed airports, shut cafes, clubs, many shops and sporting facilities and imposed a night curfew.

The World Health Organization is warning the outbreak in Africa is at its early stages and will get worse. The global health agency is trying to rally the world’s richer countries to help developing nations overcome the pandemic through debt relief, aid, cheap loans and medical supplies.

“I have said it before: this virus can wreak havoc,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing on Monday. “It can bring political, social, economic upheavals. But the choice is ours and the choice should be unity at the national level, the choice should be global solidarity.”

Two of the EU’s biggest, and most volatile, neighbors – Russia and Turkey – are in the midst of their own outbreaks.

On Wednesday, Russia recorded its worst day yet with 108 deaths. Russia is now among the worst-hit countries in the world with 972 deaths and nearly 100,000 confirmed cases. The virus is spreading fast in Russia and on Wednesday it reported 5,841 new cases of Covid-19.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has extended a partial economic shutdown through May 11. Putin has been criticized for his handling of the pandemic and his popularity has fallen, according to polls. There have been reports of strikes by nurses and gas workers over lack of protective gear.

Moscow is at the epicenter of Russia’s outbreak and field hospitals are under construction to be able to treat 10,000 coronavirus patients. Much of the city’s hospital system is now dealing with Covid-19 patients.

As elsewhere, the virus has killed medical workers, spread in Russia’s prisons and among its military ranks, infected some lawmakers, forced the country’s borders to close and canceled national events.

The virus has hit Turkey even harder. It has reported 3,081 deaths and more than 117,000 confirmed cases. Restrictions have been imposed but the economy has not been shut down completely.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to announce plans on lifting restrictions soon. Erdoğan has said he wants to reopen the country at the end of Ramadan in May.

Turkey began imposing weekend lockdowns in April. People over the age of 65 and those with medical conditions are subject to obligatory confinement.


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

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