Coronavirus around Europe: How well have governments handled the crisis?

Coronavirus around Europe: How well have governments handled the crisis?
In this file photo taken on March 31, 2020 French President Emmanuel Macron wearing protective suit and face mask. AFP
Have governments around Europe made too many mistakes in handling the coronavirus crisis or is the public behind them? Our reporters and contributors from eight different countries gauge the public mood and levels of satisfaction in their leaders.
'This week things have begun to fall apart,' Emma Pearson, Paris, France
 
Today we're so close to the end of the first phase of lockdown that we can almost taste it – on Monday, May 11th we start to loosen some of the tight restrictions that have been in place since March 17th.
 
The lifting is only very partial with many restrictions staying in place at least until June and schools only opening a couple of classes, with reduced pupils numbers.
 
And yet as the date comes closer the mood is more and more one of nervousness, rather than the party time we had imagined we would have way back in March.
 
Are we ready? Do we have enough masks? Will we be safe? And – the big one – will there be a second wave of cases?
 
As the country suffers something of a collective crise de nerfs (nervous breakdown) the fragile political unity that has sustained France over the last two months has also fallen apart.
 
No-one would claim that France's handling of the epidemic has been perfect – there have problems with masks, PPE and testing – but at least the lockdown strategy has felt largely competent and considered.
 

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This week things have begun to fall apart and government messaging has become confused (when the president's office has to issue a statement on a Sunday night contradicting what the health minister said 24 hours earlier you know something has gone wrong).
 
The French Senate, which had previously opposed a lockdown, on Monday rejected the government's plan to begin lifting the lockdown. This purely symbolic act has no practical significance but does not exactly speak of a united country. Similarly many local authorities, who had initially demanded to be able to adapt the lockdown to local conditions, are now complaining that the government's plan pushes too much responsibility onto their shoulders.
 
Is this just a temporary nervousness before the leap into the unknown that is lifting lockdown? Or is the government starting to fall apart? Scarcely a comforting thought when we have months more lockdown to come, a possible second wave of cases and a certain major financial recession.
 
And is this how UK and US citizens have been feeling for weeks as they watch a chaotic government fail to get a grip on the situation?
 
As with the virus itself, only time will tell.
 
 
'Merkel tells it how it is, but it hasn't been plain sailing,' Rachel Loxton, Berlin, Germany

It’s hard to predict what will happen next in the pandemic. But one thing’s for sure: during a German government coronavirus briefing, Chancellor Angela Merkel will put her science hat on. 

Yes, the whole world has enjoyed (and received a crash course) watching Merkel, a former research scientist with a doctorate in quantum chemistry, get into the nitty gritty of emerging from lockdown. 

In contrast to some other world leaders who’ve seemed out of their depth or clueless, Merkel’s pragmatic style has been a breath of fresh air. 

There is no sugar coating: Merkel tells it like it is and is honest about what’s expected from people in Germany. Yet by paying tribute to frontline workers and saying she’s concerned about loneliness caused by social distancing, the Chancellor has shown her human side.

It’s no wonder then that her popularity has shot up during the crisis: a recent poll found 80 percent of people were satisfied with her work.

But it’s not all been plain sailing. Merkel has struggled to keep Germany’s 16 state leaders in check, with many making up their own timetables for easing coronavirus restrictions while she had urged for a cautious approach. 

Merkel was also criticised for not showing her face at the beginning of the pandemic back in February, leaving briefings to Health Minister Jens Spahn. 

When it comes to communication, here at The Local we’ve become used to the rhythm of daily announcements, which almost always happen during working hours and rarely on weekends because Germans love their sacred Feierabend (end of the working day). 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. AFP

But have the messages always been 100 percent clear? I don’t think so.

At times the communication has been vague due to states interpreting government guidelines their own way. The mixed messages on wearing face masks, which are now mandatory in shops and on public transport, is just one example of how people in Germany were left confused.

Despite crossed wires at times, Germany reached a milestone this week. Merkel announced on Wednesday that the first phase of the pandemic was over, although she warned there’s a long struggle ahead.

There's always the risk of strict lockdown measures happening again, but with a scientist at the helm, Germany is in a good position to navigate through the crisis.

'The opposition is starting to make noise indicating the rally-behind-the-flag period is over,' Emma Löfgren, Stockholm, Sweden

Swedes who grew up in the 70-80s will tell you that when alpine ski legend Ingemar Stenmark raced down the slopes, the country all but stopped and all eyes turned towards the television. 

If you’re wondering what that anecdote has to do with the coronavirus, then you have not been watching the Swedish health authorities’ daily press briefings at 2pm, which have become a similar sort of staple in people’s schedules these days. In mid-April almost 1.5 million people tuned in to listen live to one of those briefings – that’s more than 10 percent of the population.

We get most of our coronavirus updates from expert authorities rather than government officials in Sweden, which perhaps rubs off on how those updates are communicated. They tend to emphasise individual responsibility, refusing to give an exact distance people should keep to each other (some official guidelines say two metres, some say a metre and a half) and instead encourage people to use their own judgment and common sense. Are they treating people like adults or being far too vague? I’ll leave that up to you, but I’ve heard both versions in Sweden.

Prime Minsiter Stefan Löfven. AFP

There’s been remarkably few political squabbles during this time, with the public, allies and even opposition politicians nodding appreciatively at Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s performance whenever he does make a statement (and to be fair, government ministers have now held more than 60 press conferences since the crisis started – that’s a large number in Sweden). His soft northern Swedish accent and calm demeanour in a crisis tends to resonate with many Swedes. 

That’s not to say there isn’t criticism. The opposition is starting to make noise indicating the rally-behind-the-flag period is over. Löfven’s popularity in opinion polls rose only from a rather modest starting position, and he has been accused of not answering journalists’ questions. Is the Social Democrat showing leadership by trusting his expert authorities to make the right decisions, or is he carefully shifting blame away from himself? Again, I’ve heard both versions. 

At least he doesn’t give speeches in the middle of the night, as his Italian counterpart is prone to do. Yes, I know, but even journalists need something to be grateful for in this day and age.

'Norwegians have listened to the government's advice,' Stine G. Bergo, Oslo, Norway

As life has begun returning to normal, Norwegians seem pretty pleased with the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis.

In early March, the largest ruling party, Høyre (Norway’s Conservative Party), were struggling with the lowest popularity rates the party had seen in 10 years. But that was before the coronavirus turned everything upside down. 

Now, they are climbing in opinion polls, beaten by just a hair by the main opposition Labour Party. That’s a rare feat for a Norwegian coalition government during a second mandate. 

Analysts have attributed Høyre’s newfound popularity to the crisis, and to Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

Throughout the crisis, she has appeared calm and collected. Firm-handed, but fair. Like a strict parent who knows what’s best for her children. 

This strategy paid off. Norwegians listened to the government’s advice and the epidemic curve was rapidly plateaued.

But there are those who have started to grumble that the government’s measures were too strict. 

The reason is that that the government has neglected expert advice from Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) since the beginning of the crisis.

Above all, this concerns the closing of schools on March 12th. NIPH did not recommend it at the time, saying children play a minimal role in the spreading of the coronavirus. Now, as the schools are being reopened, the experts are saying it could have been done sooner. 

NIPH even recommends the government to open up the country than it is planning to do. 

But the grumbles are mostly just that and the general feeling is that the government did what was needed to keep the epidemic under control. Plus, a lot of people here look to our neighbours in Sweden with a mix of fascination and fear, thinking that we are lucky to have done more, sooner.

No one can know what would have happened if the government had chosen to wait and see. Solberg has admitted that herself.

“We’re learning as we go. We can make mistakes on our way,” she said.

“The truth is that we don’t know any of the answers yet.”

'The problem is this does not augur well for the future as Spain tries to manage the economic fallout,' Graham Keeley, Barcelona, Spain

Gauging the public mood at a time when events move so fast can be tricky. 

However, it seems safe to say Spain has veered from horror as the death toll from coronavirus mounted on a grim daily basis, to a sense of relief that the rate of infection is slowing and some vestiges of normal life are returning. 

It would be easy to consult polls but that has its dangers. 

“There are polls to suit everyone's taste,” was how Pablo Simón, a political analyst from the University Carlos III in Madrid, put it when I asked him about what Spaniards thought of the government's handling of the crisis.

The latest this week from El Español, an online newspaper, found nearly 52% of those asked wanted elections so that they could pick another government to run the country. No surprises, then, this media veers to the right politically. 

A poll of polls by Electomania, a surveying body, found that the fortunes of Spain's two main parties, the Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and the opposition conservative People's Party (PP), had waxed and waned throughout the state of emergency. Smaller parties fared less well.

Other polls have shown Spaniards would prefer their bickering politicians would get on with handling the crisis at hand and stop trying to score points off each other. 

What would be interesting to know would be what Spaniards made of the latest antics this week?

PM Pedro Sanchez. AFP

When Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, called for another extension to the lockdown until 24 May, it should have been a formality. 

Instead, it sparked a heated political row with the far-right Vox party became unlikely bedfellow with Catalan nationalists who all opposed prolonging the lockdown for different reasons. 

Pablo Casado, leader of the PP, whose party abstained, told parliament: “Our constitution establishes that the state of emergency cannot suspend any basic rights, but you have breached that limit repeatedly.”

Sánchez retorted: “No one gets everything right in such an unprecedented situation but lifting the state of emergency now would be a complete error.” 

In the end the lockdown extension was passed but it proved how divided Spanish politics is. 

The problem is this does not augur well for the future as Spain tries to manage the economic fallout caused by the pandemic.

'It is going as quickly as it can, but as slowly as necessary. And that is just the way the Swiss like it,” Helena Bachmann, Lake Geneva region, Switzerland

At a press conference in April, the Health Minister Alain Berset was asked by a journalist how fast the Federal Council will lift various lockdown restrictions. “As quickly as we can, but as slowly as necessary”, Berset replied.

This phrase, which has since become a motto for the government’s measured approach to handling the pandemic, accurately reflects the pragmatism with which Swiss authorities have been managing the outbreak in the past several weeks.

And that sensible course of action resonates with the Swiss. 

Several surveys carried out in the last few weeks found that public confidence in the authorities’ performance has been strong. A large majority support the policies implemented by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19 and are satisfied with the way officials have been managing the crisis – both politically and health-wise.

I think the Swiss public has been so compliant with all the lockdown restrictions, including the loss of personal freedom, because they really do believe the authorities are making the right decisions to curtail the virus. 

However, even though there has been widespread support for the way the crisis is being handled, some regional nuances do exist. They can be attributed to the ‘röstigraben’ phenomenon — a cultural divide between the country’s linguistic regions; a divide which has lately been referred to as ‘coronagraben’.

Studies have shown that the majority of Swiss-Germans, who had less fallout from the pandemic than the French and Italian speakers, thought the restrictive measures imposed by the Federal Council were too stringent. But residents of French-language cantons as well as the Italian-speaking Ticino, which had the most Covid-19 cases, believed the restrictions didn’t go far enough.

But the main criticism voiced here in recent weeks is that authorities are not reviving Switzerland’s slacking economy quickly enough. Others I spoke with, however, pointed out that being cautious in the midst of a disaster is a good thing. “It is not in our Swiss nature to rush things”, a neighbour said. “In that respect, the government is acting responsibly and rationally”.

In other words, it is going as quickly as it can, but as slowly as necessary. And that is just the way the Swiss like it.

'New laws were passed at lightning speed,' Emma Firth, Copenhagen, Denmark

Denmark’s quick and decisive lockdown on 12th March, before any deaths from the coronavirus had occurred, garnered huge support from both the public and political parties. 

In fact Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said it was the first time in her political career that she had witnessed such unanimous agreement in parliament and it meant new laws were passed at lightning speed.

Before long, police were texting every mobile user in the country and they weren’t afraid to hand out fines to anyone not keeping to social distance guidelines.

Things went a bit too far when the Danish Patient Safety Authority set up a secure email for people to report anyone suspected of having the coronavirus. It was taken down after backlash that it was an infringement of human rights.

Then it went the other way when the Danish health chief said social distancing shouldn’t stop single people dating and having sex. #onlyindenmark started springing up on social media. But that Danish liberalism, along with a love of rules and value in trust, seemed to sum up lockdown.

The lockdown was such a success that just four weeks later, plans of a reopening were unexpectedly announced.

And that’s when things got tricky. Many thought it was too soon. There was a sharp intake of breath from parents and teachers across the country as they heard it would be primary schools, nurseries and kindergartens going back first.

Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. AFP

A Facebook group was even set up, where over 40 thousand people expressed their fears over how to keep their families safe. But with just a week’s notice, schools and day care centres did a remarkable job of putting the health authority’s guidelines in place for children to return safely, some even installing extra sinks.

And so people breathed out. Then the government suddenly announced that hairdressers and other small businesses could follow in the first reopening phase. It was short notice, without many details and the opposition party wanted even more businesses included.

As I sit writing this, I’m getting my haircut for the first time since reopening. I ask my hairdresser what she thinks of the government's leadership. “Since reopening, it’s definitely been divisive,” she told me. “People have questioned why we have been given priority over older children’s education”. 

Three weeks into reopening, and eight weeks since lockdown, we have got used to Mette Frederiksen’s frequent live televised press conferences and we have been reassured that infection rates are still under control. Now phase two has been announced, there will no doubt be more intakes of breath, as the changes in both society and opinion, keep coming.

Opposition politicians, attempting to whip up anger have been roundly ignored by a public more interested in seeing the infection rate go down,' Clare Speak, Bari, Italy

Since the beginning of lockdown here in Italy, officials have appealed to Italians' sense of solidarity and social responsibility, asking people to make sacrifices for the collective good. The quarantine rules were presented as tough love. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said recently that “if you love Italy, stay at home”. An official announcement on the radio, reminding us of the do's and don'ts, ends with vi vogliamo bene, “we love you”.

Conte's approval rating is above 70 percent, one of the highest-ever ratings for an Italian prime minister. In March, his measures were supported by 96 percent of the public. Even the sometimes long waits for his TV appearances – including that time he made us wait up until 2.15am – were quickly forgiven after the customary grumble.

The lockdown measures aren't quite as popular now as they were six weeks ago, but they're not widely unpopular, either. Opposition politicians, attempting to whip up anger about the removal of individual freedoms, have been roundly ignored by a public more interested in seeing the infection rate go down.

Things haven't always gone smoothly. One of the worst mistakes came early on, when a disastrous leak of the national lockdown plans saw thousands of people living and working in the worst-hit parts of northern Italy fleeing back to their families in the south overnight in a panic – undoubtedly spreading the virus further.

There's also been a lot of criticism of the official data, especially the death toll, which is thought to be vastly underestimated. But while the UK and Italy now have similar total death counts, Italy isn't seeing anywhere near the levels of anger being directed at the British government over its handling of the crisis.

Perhaps people have been more forgiving of mistakes here. After all, Italy had the misfortune of being the first western democracy to suffer an outbreak of Covid-19 – before we were even calling it that. There was little data, no example to follow. For now, there's still a feeling that the Italian government did the best it could. But that could all be about to change, as some analysts think opinions will turn in phase two.

 

 

 


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