Europe is facing one of its most difficult tests. The European Union has found itself at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, pushing health systems to the limit and leaving the continent on lockdown.
Euronews spoke to one of the women heading the EU's Coronavirus Crisis Team, Cypriot Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
The virus initially affected only China, but soon arrived in Europe. Why didn’t we see that coming?
“We were aware that the virus was in China and we did start preparing from a very early stage. On the 9th of January, the early warning system was mobilized and so was the European Centre for Disease and Control (ECDC). And the ECDC from the beginning was stressing that there was a possibility that this virus would spread further. So from the very beginning of this year, from January, we were already speaking to member states about the need for preparedness, about the need to mobilize their systems and about the need to be aware that this could be a situation that would be faced in Europe as well. “
Then why wasn't Europe prepared? Many member states said they were prepared early on. But afterward, countries were short of masks and other important equipment.
“We are facing an unprecedented situation. And don't forget that not all member states went into this crisis at the same time. Health is a member states' competence. So we as a commission were there to be able to update them on the scientific evidence to co-ordinate and also to solve problems when they appeared.”
You have the power to intervene in times of pandemic.
“Now we're all in a war against COVID19 together. My focus is on saving lives and my focus is on working in partnership with member states to ensure that we contain the spread of the virus. So people can go back to normality so that citizens' lives are not affected as they have been. Because I know how difficult it is. When this crisis is passed, and it will pass, then we'll be able to assess what we need to do differently.”
After a degree of initial confusion and chaos, now they seem to have a plan. So what is the state of play in the EU today?
“Well, as you know, the European Commission has had a plan which has been implemented for a very long time. And I would also like to remind ourselves that where there have been problems, for example, when there have been problems with the internal borders with the result that commodities like food and medicines were not moving across, the European Commission was working towards making the lanes open. We are in constant communication with the member states. I myself speak with the health ministers several times a week, in order to be able to solve problems when they arise."
"But if I may, this is not just about the member states' capacity. This is also working with industry, and with Commissioner Thierry Breton. We hold weekly video calls with all the pharmaceutical companies globally and they are able to tell us where they are facing problems and then we, as a commission, can step in. And that's our responsibility. “
Doctors and nurses all over Europe are working days and nights to help save lives. What is the EU doing for them?
“You're absolutely right that the pandemic of COVID19 has placed a huge stress on the EU health systems, and in the last few weeks, we have seen many examples of solidarity. So the European Commission proceeded to issue guidelines to facilitate and co-ordinate member states to use their existing health mechanisms in order to help patients mobility and healthcare mobility where it is needed."
You are in close contact with all the specialists, all the experts, when can we expect a vaccine or therapy against covered 19?
“As with everyone, as with every European citizen, I would hope that we would expect it as soon as possible and the European Commission has already given over 140 million through Horizon 2020 to support research projects across Europe of the vaccine."
"And has specifically given a loan to CureVac, which is working on a vaccine costing over 80 million euros."
"And may I? If I have the opportunity, please send a message to the citizens; that I know, we know how difficult it is for them to be asked to change their daily routines, their way of life, how they work, their finances, their social life, has been affected; how difficult it is to have our doors closed and our streets empty. But it is important that we adhere to the measures that member states put out based on scientific evidence in order to stop the spread of the pandemic. By stopping the spread, we take the pressure off the health systems and we will be able to slowly go back to normality.”
When will our lives in Europe go back to normal?
“Life in Europe will go back to normality gradually. We're already working on, as a European Commission, on possible exit strategies to recommend to member states based on scientific evidence. President Von Der Leyen has constituted an advisory board of renowned European virologists and epidemiologists. And with the European Centre for Disease and Control (ECDC), we are assessing what recommendations can be given to member states in order to start lifting the containment measures, again, taking into account that each member state is facing different realities on the ground.”
The crisis may cause collateral damage when it comes to treating other illnesses, what are the priorities in healthcare now?
“The priorities in healthcare now, of course, are dealing with this pandemic. But we are very aware and I discussed this with health ministers, that there are other patients and I am reaching out to them who are also facing health issues. So it is so important that we all work together. We are all responsible as citizens to slow down the spread, to take the pressure of health systems, so that all patients, not only those with COVID19, can have access to optimal healthcare. This needs to be our target."