Saturday

6th Jun 2020

Opinion

Nobody's fault? Europe's sleepwalk into disaster

Europe slept and did not hear the first murmurs. A virus outbreak somewhere in China. No need to worry, said the Chinese government.

Then a bang.

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  • The pandemic illustrates many aspects of the climate problem in condensed form: everything is connected - something goes wrong in a fish-market in Wuhan in November triggering a global health and economic crisis in March

In the night of 22 January the 11 million citizens of Wuhan learned that they could not leave the city and should stay at home. More Chinese cities were closed off.

Europe heard the bang, turned around, and continued its slumber. China was far away. There had been many health scare outbreaks before – SARS, swine flu, Ebola, mad cow disease – little ever happened here.

In 2013, historian Christopher Clark published Sleepwalkers, an account of the outbreak of the First World War.

He argued that in 1914, Europe's leaders had no idea of the horrific war and terrible consequences they were about to unleash. Avoid sleepwalking again was a refrain in many speeches on Europe in recent years.

We will not sleepwalk into nationalism. We will not sleepwalk into global warming. President Emmanuel Macron said it. Chancellor Angela Merkel said it and then-Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker mentioned it as well.

And then Europe sleepwalked into the catastrophe of a pandemic. The parallel here wasn't 1914, but 1918, when the Spanish Flu broke out.

The last pandemic in Europe, about which we had forgotten.

So, Europe failed.

Is this putting it too strongly? Didn't China obfuscate? Didn't the World Health Organization collude for too long in playing down the danger? Didn't scientists from Berlin's Charité research centre develop the first global covid-19 test as early as January? Haven't some European countries addressed this much better than others?

All true, but by March, the emergency had forced every government in Europe into an impossible choice: Letting many people die and health systems collapse, or ground much of public life and inflict massive harm on their economic lives.

They averted 1918 but got the economic crash of 1929 instead.

Good government avoid ending up with such choices, as this was an avoidable choice.

With much less time, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong have controlled or managed the outbreak without halting large parts of their economic lives. Covid-19 was a foreseeable emergency: experts had warned about pandemics in general and about corona viruses in particular in the last two decades.

The very last moment to act was 22 January. All alarm bells should have rung across Europe. They did not. Life went on.

People travelled to and from China without any EU country stopping them or testing passengers.

Albert Camus described the attitude in The Plague: "Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky."

When it broke out, everybody started washing their hands in innocence. Southern European governments said "we need help, this is not our fault".

President Macron indicated that the virus was unforeseeable. Nationalist politicians blamed the EU.

The director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said "I'm not sure that there is anything that really would have prevented this.", though in fairness, the EU level had shown more urgency than its member states.

The virus was foreseeable, and every government in Europe failed. They were not prepared, and they did not act in time. We live in democracies, however, and governments respond to what the opposition, the media, lobbyists or citizen groups push.

Nobody talked about pandemics. No politician would have gained a vote by working on preparing for pandemics. We all failed.

Is it useful to talk about failure and guilt? I think it is. Beyond the fear, there is a lot of anger. People ask why this happened. If we don't talk about who failed and how, anger does not lead us to improvement.

We can pretend that the pandemic crashed down on our heads from the blue sky, but then we will learn nothing.

The most obvious need now is a comprehensive review of what went wrong – in each member state and at the EU level - and to drastically improve our preparedness. We will learn from South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and others.

Covid-19 has given us a crash course in pandemics. Everybody knows now that an outbreak in one corner of the earth can knock on your door the next day.

We need to prepare and we will. The risk is, however, that we may spend the next years fighting the last war. The next threat may not be a pandemic, it may be 1986 – a nuclear accident – or it may be 2001 – a massive terrorist attack. Or it may be indeed 1914, a new European conflagration.

1989 Mark II

Eastern Europeans know that things can turn upside down from one day to the other. They were there in 1989 and in the following decade of economic turbulence. In most of Western Europe, this historic sensibility has been lost.

Things worked fine for 70 years, why should one worry? But history returns in different guises. Europe is already drifting back into the geostrategic realities of the 19th century, without too many people talking about it.

Not all new threats are a replay of the past, however. The unfolding climate catastrophe is a new threat.

Here the EU has been more alert than most, but it needs to do more and push others to do more. The corona-crisis illustrates many aspects of the climate problem in condensed form: Everything is connected - something goes wrong in a fish-market in Wuhan in November triggering a global health and economic crisis in March.

Scientific insight is manipulated or put in question, until it is too late. There are tipping points - once a health system is overwhelmed by the number of cases, many more people die.

The crisis may give the sense in western Europe that history is not a never-ending march of human progress.

Often, preventing the worst is the best possible achievement. In Eastern Europe it may highlight that not every threat has historical roots. Crisis often bears utopian ideas or a longing for a quick return to normal.

Both stand in the way of change. If something good comes out of this crisis, it would be a sense of realism across the EU about our vulnerabilities and an sustained will to address them effectively together.

The push cannot come from governments alone. We are all responsible.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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