Europe Treads Tightrope Between Economic Reopening, Public Health

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(121012) -- BRUSSELS, Oct. 12, 2012 (Xinhua) -- The European Union flags flutter in front of EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on Oct. 12, 2012. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union on Friday. (Xinhua/Wu Wei)

BRUSSELS (Sputnik) – The issue of when and how to reemerge from the lockdown has been the central debate in European countries in the past few weeks, with most of the nations, even those worst-hit, actively mulling over whether it is high time or too early to reopen the economies.

EU countries have reacted differently to the pandemic, deciding on their own on reestablishing borders in the Schengen area. After Austria and Denmark announced in early April their first steps toward gradual reopening, the European Commission urged the nations to do it in a “coordinated fashion,” with the EU27 later approving a relevant roadmap.

Since the pandemic has had an uneven effect on EU countries, with most of the richest nations having fared badly in their fight against the virus, except for Germany and Austria, it is up to each member state to decide when to launch the reopening.

Public Health Vs. Economy?

This has been a cynical debate on most TV stations — whether the health of the population, especially the elderly, should be safeguarded in the first place, or economic recession must first of all be avoided by going back to work as soon as possible.

“To save a few lives of the very elderly in France, are we going to put thousands of people out of work? … Life is priceless but it has a cost! Without falling into cynicism, there are many of the oldest people in this country who will no longer be voters in 2022, at the next presidential election, because they will be dead. And there you go!” prominent French journalist Christophe Barbier (L’Express) said on TF1.

Others, however, believe that it is too early to reopen, saying that people in some neighborhoods of China’s Wuhan were banned from going to groceries and were forced to order food delivery. The key was to avoid a peak in serious COVID-19 cases in hospitals, where there were not enough beds in intensive care units or even beds in emergency wards.

Italian and Spanish hospitals were overwhelmed during the pandemic and had to make choices, mostly to save younger patients. France was on the verge of being overwhelmed in several regions, but then the epidemic receded somehow.

Germany tested massively to be able to separate the people with the virus from the others and had less than half the number of deaths of France per million inhabitants.

As of late April, almost all European countries have decided to gradually loosen restrictions.

When to Reopen Schools?

Denmark was the first to reopen schools and day care centres as early as April 15 as it relaxed the lockdown after the number of infection cases stabilized. The country at that time had 237 fatalities, and its hospitals coped well.

Denmark has since managed to keep its infection rate flat, avoiding a glut of patients in hospitals. Parents who in the beginning were slightly afraid of seeing their children go back to school have been reassured by experts’ indications that the younger the children, the least affected they are if they contract the virus.

German schools as well as kindergartens will reopen nationwide on May 4. In France, President Emmanuel Macron ordered schools to reopen on May 11, but left it for parents to decide on whether to send their children back to classes. In addition, French regions will make their own choices, since the western of the country is much less affected than the north, the east or the Paris region.

In Belgium, schools will reopen only from May 18, starting with last year of primary and secondary schools and only for 10 pupils at a time.

Spain and Italy, the hardest-hit countries in Europe, have not decided on a date for reopening schools, but it is widely expected to happen only in September.

What Teachers & Parents Say?

Some trade unions in Europe have reacted with alarm at the reports that companies would be allowed to reopen in the first days of May and teachers would be called by schools to be back in classes or that courses would continue in July after the normal end of the school year to “catch up” with the program.

Belgian trade unions issued a joint letter to the government: “it is with dismay that we see the idea of putting teachers to work during the summer holidays. This idea is to catch up on the economic backlog due to the health crisis by allowing workers to be at the peak of their productivity in their company without having to worry about the care of their children … schools are not there to provide day-care. Their objective is to guarantee access to quality education for everyone. Teachers, like all public service workers, are carrying out their missions in more difficult conditions than ever by being on the front line in the fight against the spread of the virus.”

Veronique Gerard, a graphic designer in Brussels and the mother of two children in primary and secondary school, told Sputnik that she would not send her kids back to classes until September.

“I am flabbergasted: the authorities have been very tough in applying confinement: stay home, don’t see anybody for weeks, keep your kids in the apartment, and now the decide to re-open schools. I have asthma, and I am typically in the danger group, if I catch coronavirus, so I really hesitate and will probably not send the kids back to school for 1 month and a half of courses,” she said.

According to Gerard, it is “still too dangerous” both for children and teachers.

“Have they thought about the teachers who are at the end of their career, at 60+? They are also in the danger group … And I don’t trust the kids to respect the social distancing measures when they are with their friends at school… Too difficult,” she argued.

Henri Lagarde, a teacher at the Lycee Faidherbe in France’s Lille, is, in contrast, optimistic about the upcoming reopening. He, however, supports the idea that it should start with the less affected regions.

“A recent study in the school in Oise region, where the first French death was registered, a teacher, shows that 44% of the people in the school (children, teachers, administration) were infected. It had become a big cluster… But no children had a severe case of COVID-19, and strangely enough, only 11% infected their families … So children are often asymptomatic, don’t even show symptoms at all and rarely infect other people, even as close as their parents,” Lagarde said.

He still admits that teachers must be “very careful” as they are at greater risk to contract the virus than children.

“We are more at risk than the pupils to develop a serious case of pneumonia, due to COVID-19, so mouth masks, distances and hand washing compulsory … I understand the parents who are afraid, but I really think there are less dangers in schools than in the work sphere or social and sports meetings,” the teacher added.

Businesses Embrace Teleworking

Everywhere in Europe, companies – whether industries or services – have switched to teleworking, allowing all their employees whose work could be done remotely, to work without leaving their home.

Essential industries, as well as transport, have been allowed everywhere to work nonstop with the highest possible level of safety precautions for the workers.

But some sectors, such as the elevator and escalator sector, have also been allowed to continue their work.

Sputnik has contacted Matteo Volpe, sales director for DomusLift – IGV Group, a large producer of lifts in Italy, which has a 237,000 square feet factory in the heart of Lombardy, the hardest-hit region in Italy, to ask how the company was doing amid the lockdown.

“A lift is often the lifeline for elderly citizens, living on the top floors of residential estates … They need to get their food and might need to be evacuated by the medical service if they have a health accident, so the maintenance of lifts is an essential service, that has been recognized by the Italian government, letting us continue the production and delivery of components, needed by the maintenance companies. We export 70% of our lifts, mainly to Europe, so it was important to be able to ship our parts and components everywhere,” he said.

The installation of new lifts has been put on hold. The company has scaled back its production, with a reduced staff working at the factory. Marketing and sales force is working mostly from home.

“We hope that work will resume in the building sector in Italy in the first weeks of May; the government is getting ready and is in contact with Confindustria, the confederation of Italian industry, to organise the deconfinement at best,” Volpe stated.

He noted that the company will “make do” with all these difficulties and hopes that the worst of the pandemic is over.

Not Too Hastily Please, Virologist Warns

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been one of the most vocal voices in warning against hastily loosening the lockdown. There is no confidence that Europe has reached a coronavirus slowdown since the pandemic has affected less than 10 percent of the continent’s population.

Sputnik asked virologist Marc Van Ranst of KU Leuven university in Belgium, whose laboratory is an official lab for COVID-19 testing in the country, what he thought of plans for Europe to reopen in May.

“Are we on the right track? Yes, we are progressing well, though I am worried for Belgium about the fact that the number of new cases does not decline fast enough, it is more stable than anything … Every day we see the number of contamination increasing. We must keep the confinement measures as strict as possible, especially now that the population sees the end of the tunnel,” he said.

According to the virologist, Belgium is reopening schools “too early.”

“We should wait for September, but we should be anyway ready to re-introduce confinement if the figures start to rise again significantly,” he said.

As of Monday, Belgium updated its COVID-19 case count by 553 to 46,687, with the figures steadily receding. The death toll has risen by 113 to 7,207.

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