The Briefing: European governments have impossible situation to manage amid coronavirus resurgence

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By Darren McCaffrey
File photo: People wait in line to be tested for COVID-19 outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. May 12, 2020.
File photo: People wait in line to be tested for COVID-19 outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. May 12, 2020.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

It is not often that I say this. In fact, I rarely do. But I feel sorry for governments.

In the midst of this second coronavirus wave, battering every part of Europe, they are having to make difficult and, in some cases, impossible decisions: protecting lives, primarily the elderly, from a deadly disease, while trying to keep businesses open, and people in jobs.

Clamping down too harshly, or locking down again, will not just ensure a deeper recession but also adversely impact treatments for other diseases such as cancer. Domestic abuse incidents increased throughout Europe during the spring lockdown, and there are fears about what prolonged isolation, coupled with uncertainty, is doing to our mental health. That’s on top of school closures which could leave a generation without a full education, hitting the poorest the hardest.

Not a surprise, then, that even the World Health Organisation is advising against returning to the measures taken in March and April. Hans Kluge, the WHO’s Director in Europe, told me lockdowns should only ever be used as “a last resort”. The alternative is equally grim. We know coronavirus kills some of the most vulnerable in our society. Hundreds of thousands have died in Europe, and more than a million worldwide. We can't simply do nothing. Nor can we carry on as we did before.

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Yes, we have become so much better at treating people who’ve been infected. Today, even those who end up in intensive care are more likely to live than was the case earlier this year. But if hospitals become overwhelmed again, that progress will be wasted. Yet again, doctors and nurses will have to make decisions about whom to treat, who lives, and who dies.

Add to that the unknown of so-called “long covid” - symptoms that persist months after the infection. There’s also increasing evidence of re-infection, and a whole lot that we don’t know.

Essentially, governments can’t just let the virus rip through our society. It is a morally bankrupt position to take. But that balance between protecting lives and livelihoods is impossible to get right all of the time. The task is made even more difficult by us, the governed. We liked the initial lockdowns. Compliance was high, which is, perhaps, unsurprising given how little we knew about this virus. However, that mood has changed over the summer. Now, opinion is fragmented between those happy with more restrictions and those who want everything to return to some kind of normal.

No doubt one of the key reasons we are in this mess is there are too many of us breaking the rules. Particularly the young. We have all seen the videos of house parties or street parties with often hundreds of people flouting the rules.

In many ways, this is understandable. Younger Europeans are missing out on their education, are more at risk of losing their jobs, and are less likely to find new ones. Locked down, they are also missing out on essentially being young and living life, when months can seem like years. Crucially, they know the virus is highly unlikely to kill them.

Coronavirus has exposed Europe’s deep generational divide. A divide which has grown over the past decade, between wealthy, secure, baby boomers and the struggling young. Yes, we are all suffering, but everyone is suffering in different ways.

We can only beat this thing together. Unfortunately, that means more restrictions for now. But if we don’t all comply, the restrictions will only have to last longer. As difficult as the choices are for governments, they can’t sit by and watch thousands of their citizens die.

So wise up. Let’s get through the next few, difficult, months, and hope that 2021 is nothing like the year we’re having right now.

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