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Europe digs in for a long battle with the virus


In the warm summer months, coronavirus in Europe seemed in retreat. Economies were reopening and intensive care wards emptying. Though a second wave of pandemic in Europe’s winter was long feared, it has arrived with alarming force and speed. Germany’s federal and state governments agreed this week to shut parts of the economy and tighten controls on social contact; France announced a new national lockdown of a least a month. Pressure is growing on Downing Street for tougher nationwide measures in England — bringing it more into line with those in place elsewhere in the UK and among its European neighbours.

Other European countries had already acted, or are set to follow. Ireland last week introduced a six-week nationwide lockdown. Italy, Belgium and Greece introduced night curfews to curb social contacts. Spain, too, announced a nationwide curfew and triggered emergency powers.

The rapid resurgence of the virus has removed any prospect of a “V-shaped” recovery, leaving European leaders instead contemplating a potential double-dip recession. Even partial lockdowns will require further support measures to mitigate the economic impact, pushing soaring deficits and debt levels still higher. The European Central Bank signalled on Thursday it was likely to provide more stimulus before the year-end, warning risks were “clearly tilted to the downside”.

Governments had fervently hoped to avoid repeating the kind of national lockdowns seen six months ago. There are, however, some positives amid the gloom. One is that knowledge and experience of the virus is permitting a more calibrated and targeted approach this time that may limit some of the economic harm. Efforts are focused on limiting social contacts — in the home and in hospitality venues — while allowing other areas of economic activity to continue. Germany and France are closing restaurants and bars and some other venues for social mixing. But schools, factories and companies, where Covid-safe measures are now routine, are staying open.

Both countries are attempting, too, to make lockdowns time-limited. If infection rates can be brought under control sufficiently in November, controls might be loosened before Christmas — allowing some rebound in consumer spending before the year-end.

In the third of Europe’s big three economies, UK prime minister Boris Johnson continues to pursue a regional approach in England and hold out against nationwide measures — as France’s Emmanuel Macron did until this week. But a similar time-limited national closure of hospitality businesses is unavoidable if Britain wants to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed and stand a chance of a more “normal” Christmas. With the UK-wide furlough scheme ending this weekend, chancellor Rishi Sunak will have to ensure businesses forced to close nationally on government orders will receive support, as he is doing in high-risk regions.

Across Europe, businesses and individuals are learning to adapt. Companies have grown used to remote operating and supply chains have adjusted, helped by recovering economies in Asia. Yet the biggest lesson of recent weeks is that further adjustments in mindset are needed. While hopes remain of viable vaccines appearing within months, it is unclear they will be a “silver bullet”. Societies may need to rely more on improving treatments — which are reducing death rates — and advances in technology allowing cheap, mass testing. As the first anniversary approaches of the report of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, it is ever clearer that we are in for a long haul.



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