Updated: March 11, 2020 12:57:23 pm
The novel coronavirus outbreak has triggered in Italy what could be the most sweeping restrictions ever put on free movement in a democratic country during peacetime. Some 16 million people in the cultural and economic heart of northern Italy have been put under lockdown in order to arrest the spread of the virus that had killed 366 individuals and sickened 7,375 by Monday.
[Update: By Wednesday (March 11), some 62 million people were under lockdown as the death toll rose to 631 with over 10,000 infected.]
The Italian lockdown has economic and social implications for all of Europe. Factories in several industries could see full or partial closure. Across Europe, trade fairs are being cancelled, airports are empty, and nearly all tourism has slowed down dramatically. European economic growth was already near zero when the virus hit, and some economists have said that a recession is probably inevitable now.
This situation has triggered a debate on whether a China-style lockdown is indeed the best response to the crisis — and whether the economic cost is not actually higher than the health risk from COVID-19 which, despite its potential to make some vulnerable people very sick, is, according to the WHO, a mild disease for most people.
“We are in a world where viruses like this one will appear more and more often,” François Bricaire, a member of France’s Academy of Medicine and a specialist in infectious diseases, told The New York Times. “If every time countries react this way, we will bring the whole economy down.”
The responses of governments in London, Berlin, Paris, and Madrid have reflected this concern, and their statements and reactions have been more cautious than Italy’s.
Indeed, the massive public health crisis is testing the very idea of European unity, which the exit of Great Britain has already undermined badly.
Each EU country has its own public health system, and as national survival instincts have kicked in, and depending on the countries’ assessment of the levels of infection within their borders, some countries (France, Germany, the Czech Republic) have capped exports of protective medical equipment. Brussels has protested — the EU Health Commissioner has pleaded that “solidarity is key”, and the Heath Minister of Belgium, Maggie De Block, has posted on Twitter: “Blocking exports between member states is not in the spirit of the European Union” — but no country has shown enthusiasm for a uniform European response.
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This disagreement aside, some analysts have argued that Europe’s unique social programmes and labour laws in general have the potential to provide a degree of protection against possible economic recession.
The universal healthcare systems of European countries, these analysts believe, could shore up the economy by supporting consumer spending because people would worry less about large medical bills.
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