Europe initially failed to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously enough. But then the EU demonstrated its strengths, most notably by taking swift action to counter the economic recession.
Text: Dietmar Schobel
Do you remember the days when the epidemiological meaning of the word ‘incidence’ was of little interest to most Europeans, ostensibly because infectious diseases only posed a serious threat as an epidemic on other continents?
All that changed in March 2020, when the danger posed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus became unmistakably apparent in all Member States of the European Union. By then, Italy had already been hit hard by COVID-19. By 23 February, eleven municipalities in northern Italy had already been sealed off, and then on 28 February, Italy alerted its European partners and urgently requested material support in the form of masks, protective clothing and ventilators.
The rest is contemporary history and we are all painfully familiar with it: from the border closures and export bans at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, to the evacuation of intensive care patients from particularly hard-hit countries to other EU Member States, to the joint procurement of vaccines and the establishment of the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). Could the European Union, could the Member States have reacted faster, differently, more effectively?
Europe underestimated the danger
“When we reflect on the public health threat posed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it’s clear that the European Union and the Member States should have reacted more swiftly and decisively,” says Luuk van Middelaar, Dutch political theorist, historian, professor at Leiden University and author of the book “Een Europees Pandemonium”, which deals with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the European Union and will be published in English under the title “Pandemonium – Saving Europe” in late October. According to Luuk van Middelaar, officials almost everywhere in the world, particularly in Europe, underestimated the epidemic: “For the general public in Europe, epidemics were either ancient history, like the medieval plague, cholera and the Spanish flu roughly 100 years ago, or something ‘exotic’, like leprosy and Ebola in Africa, or SARS, MERS and this time around COVID-19 in Asia.”
It’s clear that the European Union and the Member States should have reacted more swiftly and decisively.LUUK VAN MIDDELAAR, PROFESSOR AT LEIDEN UNIVERSITY
Although the response to the health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic was slow, measures to mitigate its social and economic repercussions were taken “virtually at the speed of light” by EU standards, he says, adding: “This is where the pandemic was a game changer and brought the Member States closer together. Even during the financial and euro crisis of 2008 to 2012, it wasn’t possible for the European Union to incur debt and assume collective responsibility for it as a means of supporting individual members. Now it is. The crucial difference was that the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel changed its stance on this issue.” The EU Recovery and Resilience Facility now provides Member States with €672.5 billion in financial support, consisting of €312.5 billion in grants and €360 billion in loans.
Beneficial for all Member States
“In retrospect, we naturally have to admit that the pandemic caught us unprepared. But there are also many things that have worked well in the European Union and the Member States,” says Janez Poklukar, physician, former director of the University Medical Centre Ljubljana, and since February health minister of Slovenia, which is currently holding the Presidency of the EU Council. This applies not only to the extremely rapid mobilisation of financial resources to prevent an economic recession, but also to the joint procurement scheme to deliver vaccines, says Janez Poklukar, who points out that “it simplified negotiation processes, was much more efficient compared to running individual purchases and beneficial for all Member States”.
There are also many things that have worked well in the European Union and the Member States.JANEZ POKLUKAR, HEALTH MINISTER OF SLOVENIA
Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, emphasises that the high degree of cooperation among scientists all over the world was essential for developing so many effective vaccines to combat a new pathogen so quickly: “The global community of scientists willingly shared information and knowledge, in real time, sometimes at great personal risk. These cross-border partnerships have saved millions of lives and counting.”
A new geopolitical role
The worldwide COVAX initiative, which was launched early on in April 2020, also aims to save lives. As one of three pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator programme, COVAX was designed to help ensure that the poorer countries of the world in particular also have access to COVID-19 vaccines. The European Union played a leading role in establishing the ACT Accelerator programme. In doing so, it has taken the first steps towards filling the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the United States as the leading power of the free world under the administration of President Donald Trump. “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the European Union together as a community with a shared sense of destiny, and the EU has assumed certain geopolitical responsibilities as well. Redefining Europe’s role on the world stage and our position between China and the USA will continue to be a key challenge for us in the years to come,” says Luuk van Middelaar.
This is also true of the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic consequences. “But COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic and it certainly won’t be the last,” says Hans Kluge. We urgently need to learn from the current experience rapidly in order to be better prepared for the next pandemic. A global treaty on pandemic preparedness and response is particularly important to achieve this, as it is well known that pathogens do not stop at the borders of countries and continents.
COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic and it certainly won’t be the last.HANS KLUGE, WHO REGIONAL DIRECTOR FOR EUROPE
Coordination and cooperation must be improved at a European level. This would entail granting more decision-making power to the EU and its institutions, since health policy has so far largely been the preserve of the Member States. Preliminary steps have already been taken: data exchange is to be improved and the existing institutions – the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) – are to be given greater authority in future and, in the event of a pandemic, are to quickly appoint task forces to advise the Member States. In addition, a new European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, or HERA for short, has been established. It will be set up as an internal European Commission structure and will be fully operational in early 2022. HERA activities will rely on a budget of €6 billion from the current EU Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2022-2027.
There can be no more excuses
It remains to be seen whether these measures will be sufficient or if further steps will be necessary on the road towards a European Health Union and, ultimately, whether an amendment to the European Treaties should be pursued, as some health experts insist. “One thing is clear,” says Luuk van Middelaar: “If the European Union is as slow to react to the next pandemic as it was this time around, we will no longer be able to make excuses based on the fact that the last pandemic occurred 100 years ago.”