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Inconsistent handling of the virus : How the EU fails in the corona crisis

The corona pandemic is now severely affecting all European countries. But instead of jointly preventing the virus from spreading further and coordinating jointly how the sick can be cared for in the best possible way, each state is primarily working on its own solutions. These include export bans, border closings and sometimes contradicting measures.

The reason for this is also the structure of the EU. This includes a common internal market, but when it comes to health policy, the Union has no say. According to the EU treaties, this is almost exclusively decided by the member states. And it has done very differently in the past few weeks.

For example, when it comes to replenishing or even sharing medical supplies, testing citizens for the coronavirus or determining how its spread should be prevented, by isolation or by infecting a certain proportion of the population.

Close borders? The epidemic agency thinks that's wrong

The isolated action of European states begins at their borders. Many countries have now closed. The EU Epidemic Agency, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) informed the Investigate Europe team of journalists when asked that this was a wrong decision: “The available evidence does not support the recommendation of border closings cause significant side effects and social and economic disruptions in the EU. "

Instead, "cooperation is the key to all cross-border health threats, including Covid-19". A view that researchers also support elsewhere.

[The Covid-19 map of Germany: all infections by district and federal state]

"You have to try to act as uniformly as possible in order to be able to counter an epidemic in Europe," says the former director of the Dutch Center for Infectious Disease Control, Roel Coutinho, the Dutch broadcaster NOS. But instead of a common line, each country now has its own policy and, according to Coutinho, these are sometimes confusing.

This is particularly evident from three points: how European countries test their populations, how they separate healthy and infected people from one another and how they procure medical equipment. In all of this, the European Union hardly acts or acts too late - due to a design flaw or an unfortunate assessment of the situation.

I. Who the EU countries are testing

Whether in northern Italy, southern Germany or western France, there is a lack of capacities everywhere to test nationwide. Every state has to restrict who it tests and who not. The criteria for this differ massively. Comparable data can hardly be obtained in this way. In Italy, only people who show symptoms of pneumonia or have had contact with confirmed infected cases are screened.

In Germany or Portugal, usually only those who have Covid 19 symptoms and have had contact with an infected person or have returned from a risk area are tested. France and the Netherlands mainly test people with severe symptoms, Greece mainly older people. WHO Director Adhanom calls this "blindfolded fire fighting".

The end result is data that can hardly be compared across borders. They could help keep infected and healthy people away from each other. But what if it is not clear who carries the virus and who does not?

II. Isolate or infect society

In the past few weeks, public life has been largely shut down in many parts of Europe - but not everywhere.

Last Monday, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte addressed his nation. It is an absolute priority to minimize the risks for people who are particularly at risk, he said. Therefore, people should isolate themselves, bars have been closed, as well as fitness studios and restaurants, and there will be no school lessons until further notice.

But a deliberate side effect is "to build up controlled herd immunity at the same time," said Rutte. It is hoped that a certain number of people will become infected in order to immunize themselves.

However, he later stressed that the Dutch strategy had been misunderstood and referred to numerous protective measures. Nevertheless, the rules in the neighboring country have so far been relatively loose. The government wanted to avoid a ban on public life for as long as possible. It was not until yesterday, Monday evening, that she decided to forbid more than three people from meeting in public. Shops are allowed to remain open, however, factories are working.

The UK government was most vocal about experimenting with "herd immunity". The WHO warns against such experiments. The top priority should be to test people and isolate infected people.

III. Hoard or share medical equipment

It is also contradicting how the EU states manage their medical equipment. In some countries, for example, there is a lack of cleaning agents, gloves, protective masks or ventilators.

On a Polish auction platform, masks were traded for up to 100 euros until the government banned the deal. Since there is a threat of a bottleneck, private individuals have even started sewing masks in several places in the country. Instead of working from home, some countries continue to order their masks from China, while others have them made in their own country.

In France, the state has confiscated all masks. According to Health Minister Olivier Véran, the country currently has over 100 million masks. But because even that might not be enough in a few weeks, French companies are now producing.

In Germany, too, companies are now producing masks that have free capacities. A Thuringian mattress manufacturer wants to produce 400,000 masks, and a clothing company in Baden-Württemberg is planning to produce 100,000 pieces of respiratory protection per week.

How differently and in isolation the EU states act became clear at the beginning of March. The coronavirus had already started to spread rapidly in Italy when the Italian government asked the EU to activate the EU civil protection procedure. This empowers the EU Commission to organize cross-border support in crisis situations. "Unfortunately, not a single EU member state answered," wrote Italy's EU ambassador, Maurizio Massari, a few days later in a guest article in the magazine "Politico".

[Face masks against the virus? What really protects]

On the contrary: shortly afterwards Germany imposed an export ban on medical protective equipment. Even private individuals who tried to send only a few protective masks by parcel to the northern Italian crisis areas received a warning on the website of the logistics group DHL. The "export and shipment of certain medical protective clothing from Germany" is prohibited, it said.

Shortly afterwards, the EU Commission criticized the German government. Because such an arrangement is contrary to the laws of the internal market. The embargo was lifted at the end of last week - on the DHL side, however, the notice was only removed with a delay.

According to research by “Investigate Europe”, there are still sufficient ventilators in almost all European countries. Only in Spain and Italy is there a lack of equipment. But the states go their own way when it comes to creating additional technology.

Sometimes private companies now have to decide which state will get new ventilators and when. One of them is the Lübeck family company Dräger. The federal government recently ordered 10,000 devices there. But she is not the only one. There are also orders from other countries. An in-house task force now has to decide in which order the orders are to be processed.

The absent EU

On March 8, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a historic turning point in Rome. For the first time in post-war European history, an entire region, northern Italy, was to be sealed off.

A few hours later, in Brussels, 1000 kilometers away, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appeared before the press. But she hardly talked about the virus, instead she attested that her commission had done an excellent job in its first 100 days in office. Later von der Leyen will tell the "Bild" newspaper: "I think all of us who are not experts initially underestimated the virus."

But von der Leyen could already have known how dangerous the pandemic could be. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) started working with the Italian authorities back in January. The EU Agency for Infectious Diseases had submitted six risk assessments for the coronavirus. But hardly anyone heeded the reports, the recommendations of which are not binding.

The European Union created the ECDC to advise national governments on health issues. The aim of the center is to support states “by providing data, advice and risk analyzes on diseases and epidemics”, says Commission spokesman Massimo Gaudina. "With the specific problems of the coronavirus, it was activated immediately."

But it was not only here that the EU remained powerless. Because the member states ignored further recommendations. Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said last Monday in front of an almost empty press room: "We recommend not to close Schengen, as the contagion is now taking place in all countries, so closing the borders is pointless." twelve states closed their borders, including Spain, France, Austria, Hungary and Germany.

On Thursday, the European Commission made another attempt to help the member states - with an EU civil protection procedure. This is an urgency mechanism to acquire, store and distribute medical equipment.

[Virologist Drosten: "A year in a state of emergency"]

The Commission calls companies directly and tries to negotiate agreements. The first contracts for protective masks and medical equipment should then be signed at the end of March. When this first step is taken at EU level, schools and daycare centers in Germany will already be closed for 14 days and people have been living in almost complete isolation for a week, and in particularly badly affected countries like Italy, hundreds of people will continue to die every day.

[Note to editors: “Investigate Europe” is a team of journalists from nine countries that jointly research topics of European relevance and publish the results across Europe.
The project is supported by the Schöpflin Foundation, the Rudolf Augstein Foundation, the Hübner & Kennedy Foundation, the Norwegian Fritt-Ord Foundation, the Open Society Initiative for Europe, the Portuguese Gulbenkian Foundation, the Italian Cariplo Foundation and private Supported donors. In addition to the authors, Wojciech Ciesla, Thodoris Chondogiannos (Reporters United Greece), Daphne Dupont-Nivet (Investico), Ingeborg Eliassen, Juliet Ferguson, Maria Maggiore, Leila Minano, Elisa Simantke and Harald Schumann contribute to Investigate Europe's corona research. ]

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