Europe needs hope and generosity to battle COVID-19

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As a normally effervescent Madrid feels muted during Easter Sunday, there are political challenges that Spain must overcome on its road to recovery.

An empty Madrid road is a rare sight. | Angel Navarrete

On Easter Sunday 2020, it was quiet. I live in Madrid, one of the liveliest cities in Europe, a city known for its citizens, the Madrileños, who love to live life outdoors in the thousands of cafés, restaurants, bars, parks. But on Easter Sunday and the Semana Santa (the Holy Week) observed in the days leading up to it, its citizens are all indoors confined indoors by a very strict lockdown. The colourful boisterous streets are still. The quiet has death in the air and is punctuated by the mournful sirens of speeding ambulances, and the occasional police car. The public transport runs, but the buses and the metro, the local trains are empty.

The bustle of Madrid has gone into homes. We are online. Watching the news. The Internet. Movies. Games. Bingeing on TV series. Video and online games.

The news is focussed mostly on the coronavirus pandemic and its deathly impact. As of Easter Sunday, at least 166,019 persons have been confirmed to suffer from the COVID-19 virus. Tragically, at least 16,972 persons have died because of this disease. Spain has the highest number of persons diagnosed with the virus in Europe. The glimmer of hope is that at least 62,391 persons have recovered at the time of writing. Just over 4,000 persons have been diagnosed with this virus ailment, the lowest increase in two weeks, and 619 persons died, as of Easter Sunday. In Madrid, the epicenter for Spain, more than 46,587 cases have been diagnosed with 6,278 fatalities.


And so, the daily deadly toll in numbers continue sadly. Beyond the numbers, there are names, families who have lost their loved ones. Each one has a story of how they fell victim to this terrible pandemic. A large number of those persons who have died in Spain are above 70 years of age. Many died in care homes, where the virus ran rampant on the elderly, many of whom were already weakened by other ailments. But they were sadly low in priority to those cases, in the initial phase of the epidemic, who were hospitalised. Moreover, their care workers lacked basic equipment including masks.

There is a narrative built up by the media with the encouragement of the authorities, that of the governments fighting a war against this unseen enemy. The frontline soldiers are the medical staff, the doctors and nurses, the auxiliary staff, the cleaning staff, the pharmacies, the truck drivers, the supermarket staff. Many have sadly fallen victim to this pandemic. In Spain, as of last week, nearly 14% of those diagnosed were medical staff. A very high number of casualties.

The high human cost of the pandemic is being attributed to the slow response by the authorities, the lack of hospital beds for Intensive Care Treatment, the lack of gowns (the PPEs), lack of masks and goggles, lack of ventilators. So, there are stories emerging of doctors playing God. Choosing who gets the full treatment and who are left out given the lack of equipment, shortage of beds. Spain, like most of Europe, did not take the pandemic seriously as it was in distant China and then, South Korea. These countries had suffered and learnt from earlier pandemics like SARS, MERS, Ebola, but none of these pandemics had touched or seriously affected Europe.

And when Spain looked for the equipment, including masks, they had to go to China, or in the case of medicines, India too. Even the Spanish multinational Zara, which volunteered to supply hundreds of thousands of masks and PPEs, had to fly them from its factories in China. It has also highlighted the lack of investment over the years for improvement of public health, partly due to the financial crisis that badly affected Spain a decade ago. Spain also suffered an initial lack of coordination as its provinces, all of whom have varying levels of autonomies and who are responsible for health, were not always on the same page. It appears that since then, the federal government has taken charge though there are criticisms on the increased centralised powers assumed by Madrid and also its policies regarding relaxing of the lockdown measures, all of which, the critics claim, have been carried out without much discussions.

Despite the quiet Easter Sunday that I passed in solitary isolation, I found Pope Francis’ speech, as also the many messages I received on my mobile phone, comforting, like a virtual lifeline of hope.

There has been a lack of support from neighbouring countries who were also stunned by the sudden infectious spread of the epidemic. Italy suffered initially, with its cries for regional support ignored by the EU. Maybe the EU is not built for handling a health crisis of such proportions, but even then, its initial silences and inaction was deafening. Since then, there have been open differences on the ways to approach and meet the initial costs of the health crisis and also shore up those unemployed, and the businesses who have gone into economic hibernation and finally the rebuilding. The packages were initially estimated by the European Central Bank at €1.5 trillion, which has since been apparently scaled up. The politics of the national States in the EU has reared up with the wealthy Northern States (Netherlands, Germany, Austria) not showing as much political will to help the badly affected Southern States of Spain, Italy and now France.

Finally, the EU will provide the funds but the bickerings of national States and a general hesitation towards sharing the costs of the biggest crisis since the Second World War will have ramifications as the socio-economic costs along with the consequent political impacts come to bear. The EU can, after all, be stronger if its weakest member States are helped to recover and that recovery is consolidated. There is sadly a lack of generosity, though there have been instances of patients being flown from Italy and France to Germany. Maybe the EU has to do much more, especially in the economic rescue and restructuring packages for the bloc and beyond.

There is a risk that unless bold economic measures are taken both by the EU and the individual States, the costs of this crisis will take a long time to be recovered. Spain had barely begun to recover from the ravages of the economic crisis a decade ago with an unemployment rate among the youth sitting at a conservative estimate of over 20%. And most new job opportunities were part-time or internships. The immediate forecast is much grimmer.

It was very graphic to see Pope Francis give his traditional Easter sermon at St Peter’s to an empty hall; his sermon was streamed online and called for human dignity. Despite the quiet Easter Sunday that I passed in solitary isolation, I found his speech, as also the many messages I received on my mobile phone, comforting, like a virtual lifeline of hope. I also joined my neighbours in the daily applauses from our open windows and balconies to acknowledge the medical staff who are working so hard. I did not know most of them before and now they give me a bond, a human touch, a smile, a hope that we are all in this together and we should support all unknown persons who are selflessly giving their professional training and effort to save lives. Maybe that is what we should never abandon: hope and the power of generosity. And a wish that those who survive this catastrophe will learn lessons for the future.

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