At the moment the Chinese approach seems to be working. It is attractive to countries with relatively low infection numbers, limited global economic integration and inadequate medical infrastructure.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Covid-19 as pandemic. Although the outbreak has somehow stabilised in China and South Korea, there has been a sudden spread of the disease across Europe, which has now become the ‘epicentre of the pandemic’.
Aiming at Europe, many countries, including India and the United States, have imposed comprehensive travel restrictions. As of March 15, about 39,000 cases were reported in the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom with about 1,700 deaths. A significant number of cases in India have linkages to Europe, mainly Italy.
It is not just Italy where more than 17,000 cases are reported but the numbers are increasing rapidly in Spain, France, Germany, the UK, Netherlands, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Although most world leaders are assuring their citizens that things are under control, many European leaders are relatively candid in their approach.
The EU and many European leaders maintain that many countries in Europe are just at the beginning of crisis. This include the European Commission President and leaders from Germany, France, Spain and the UK. They feel that a large number of citizens will be affected by the virus as it is not possible to stop it. The focus must be to protect vulnerable citizens and slowing down the spread so that health systems are not overwhelmed. They feel shutting borders at this stage may not be an appropriate response. The UK is relying on ‘herd immunity’ in which about 40 million British citizens need to become infected in order to build immunity in the society. Although the WHO has already questioned this theory, because of limited knowledge of the virus behaviour, it seems some other European countries may be following somewhat similar strategies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who herself has doctorate in chemistry, feels up to 70 percent of population could be infected. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that this is the “worst public health crisis for a generation” and “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”. The British government feels “this is long haul” and the country will reach peak of its outbreak in 10 to 14 weeks.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared infections in Spain may reach 10,000 this week. French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer also stated that probably more than half of its population will be affected. Many European nations also ruled out immediate closure of borders and activities. Sensing trouble, European stock markets are already down 30 percent compared to February. The European Commission feels the virus may push the EU economy into recession this year.
In comparison, Chinese leadership is asserting that tide is turning and the disease has been “curbed”. In the meanwhile, former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, British Health Minister, French Culture Minister, Spanish Minister for Equality, Italian Chief of Army Staff, leader of Italian Democratic Party, Spanish far-right VOX party leader and wife of Spanish PM are down with the virus.
When things are getting out of hand, Italians have lockdown the entire county. Now whole of Spain is also under lockdown, Austria has restricted movements and France has closed non-essential establishments. Romania and Czech Republic may follow suit.
Since all European countries are affected, French President Emmanuel Macron thinks it needs a ‘European response’. If needed borders, have to closed at the European level. The EU believes that a global crisis of this nature requires cooperation rather than unilateral actions. It also ‘disapproves’ US’ travel ban from Schengen countries, which it feels was ‘taken unilaterally and without consultation’. Meanwhile, a borderless Europe is disappearing as Denmark, Poland, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Cyprus, Lithuania are introducing full or selective border controls.
It seems now that two different approaches to deal with virus are emerging. One is Chinese and the second is European (British-Franco-German). The Chinese approach is to strictly lockdown entire areas very early, quarantine residents; establish large scale temporary hospitals; keep affected areas (or perhaps the entire country) quarantined till the time some treatment of the virus is available. The main focus is on breaking transmission.
The European approach seems to suggest that very little can be done once the virus enters communities. It will take some time to develop immunity and treatment. Lockdowns and border closures may look attractive to some leaders at the moment, but they are not going to be very effective in the medium run. In the process, this approach will significantly harm local economies and societies. So the strategy is to live with the virus but minimise impact.
At the moment the Chinese approach seems to be working. It is attractive to countries with relatively low infection numbers, limited global economic integration and inadequate medical infrastructure. This allows time to mobilise resources and medical infrastructure. However, if countries stumble at the initial stage, they will have to follow the European approach. After all, treatment and vaccination for Covid-19 may not be available soon. Lockdowns and isolating countries from the outside world may be a good strategy to begin with, but it will have a limited impact if it is not followed by contact tracing, appropriate testing and mobilisation of resources for improving health systems.
After the initial bungling, the Chinese example so far shows that it is possible to control the epidemic if resources can be mobilised. Similarly, many European countries are showing how things can go out of hand very easily. Ultimately, the response to Covid-19 is ‘not about containment or mitigation, it is about both’ as argued by head of the WHO.Gulshan Sachdeva is Jean Monnet Chair & Chairperson, Centre for European Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal.