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Tomás Vieira Silva and Barbara Polin: The outside is frightful

Singing “Let It Snow” has never been so bittersweet.The outside is indeed frightful but, sadly, it is not for the weather. By the end of 2020, Covid-19 has stormed every corner of the Old Continent: national leaders scrambled to save both their GDPs and citizens’ health, often failing to implement an effective response.

Germany: “Urgent need for action”

As Europe approaches Christmas Day, the German government declared a new lockdown. Starting on December 16, when almost 29.000 new cases of infection and 749 deaths were reported, the lockdown will be in place until 10 January 2021.

The unexpected record numbers of infections and deaths led Angela Merkel to declare that “there is an urgent need for action”. Under the lockdown decree, only essential shops – such as supermarkets and pharmacies – can remain open, with some exceptions that provide click-and-collect options to the customers. Schools will be closed and people must, if possible, work from home.

Nonetheless, some restrictions will be relaxed from the 24th to the 26th of December, allowing households to be visited by no more than four family members. As for New Year’s Eve, all public gatherings are prohibited, as are all firework celebratory displays.

Netherlands: If Germany sneezes, the Netherlands take a cold

Following the German announcement, the Dutch government formally issued a new lockdown. In a rare live address televised on the 14th December, watched by over 8 million people, Mark Rutte stated that “The Netherlands is closing down”.

Between 9th and 13th December, more than 58.000 new cases were reported, with 398 deaths and 1.702 hospitalisations registered. Due to an increasing number of hospitalisations, the government stated that “more than one million routine hospital procedures have had to be postponed”, putting pressure on an already overworked healthcare system.

While restaurants, bars and similar establishments have been functioning on a takeaway system since mid-October, under the new measures all non-essential shops must be closed. This does not include supermarkets and other food shops, pharmacies, banks, and petrol stations. Further, all public venues, such as museums, theatres and amusement parks will be closed as well. The government has issued a “work from home at all times” advice, while contact professions – including hairdressers, sex workers, and tattoo artists - must suspend all activity. Primary, secondary and higher education must be moved online, with a few exceptions, such as practical learning and examinations. Similarly to the German lockdown, some restrictions will be relaxed during Christmas, in order to allow a maximum of three adult guests per house. These measures will be in place until 19th January 2021.

Belgium: Fragmentation and resilience

While the Netherlands has declared a five-weeks harsh lockdown from December 15th, Belgium is still considering what to do. According to Steven Van Gucht, virologist and member of Belgium’s Scientific Committee, the Netherlands and Belgium follow different epidemiological curves. In a few words, the current Dutch situation is comparable to the Belgian state of affairs in October, when the infections rose again after a period of plateau. After meeting on December 18, the Belgian Scientific Commission did not implement new measures, even if the number of cases increased by 9% this week. This upward trend is particularly worrisome in light of a somber world record: COVID-19 killed around 1,555 people per 100,000 residents, the highest number ever recorded.

The reasons for this number are unclear, but they may derive from larger flaws than the ones found in the Belgian health system. For example, Felipe Araujo from “Foreign Policy” describes a fragmented State, deeply divided in the Dutch-speaking Flandres, the Francophone Wallonie and the international Brussels-Capital regions. The lack of national cohesion may have weakened the calls for unity coming from a fragile federal government, hampering the homogenous application of anti-COVID rules.

Against this background, the current Belgian indecisiveness may be staggering. In fact, its roots could be seen already at the beginning of October. In an unusual speech in the semi-circle of the European Parliament, Belgian PM Alexander De Croo made his mind clear; “our country, businesses and the economy can’t take another lockdown. We are going to invest in our health care and extensive tracing and testing”.

Italy: Different colours, one virus, one nation

Since late October, Italian regions have been divided in three zones - red, orange and yellow - according to the local health risk. As Christmas approached, sources from the government suggested that all of Italy could become a yellow zone, as relaxation of rules would be useful to boost consumers’ spending and to uplift the general mood. However, when Germany announced a new lockdown on December 13th, Rome was quick to change intentions. After having imposed restrictions on international travels, the Italian government convened the Scientific-Technical Committee (Comitato Tecnico-Scientifico in Italian) to decide on regulations for the Christmas period. “People do what is allowed”, commented the Italian journalist Antonio Polito. “If you allow bars and restaurants to open, customers will come and consume”. In other words, the frequent uproars about Christmas crowds were legitimate, but baseless from a legal point of view. After daily deaths reached the frightening number of 800-900 per day, the government took action: all of Italy will become a red zone from the 24th December to the 6th of January, with more freedoms on the three days after Christmas. As soon as the toughest measures are applied, Italians will not be able to leave their hometown unless it has less than 5,000 inhabitants.

France: A soft Christmas and a positive President

While Italy maintained a three-tiers system, France declared a national lockdown by the end of October. Until December 15th, French people were allowed to leave their homes only for necessities and physical exercise. These measures were deemed necessary to curb the infections, which peaked at more than 86,000 cases on the 7th November. Now, a few days ahead of Christmas holidays, the French government chose to maintain only the curfew, conceding more freedom to its citizens. At the same time, it launched a mass screening project with the double purpose of detecting the general spread of COVID-19 and maintaining Christmas festivities.

On December 17th, however, the news of President Macron testing positive sent a wave of shock through all of France and Europe. Before he developed symptoms, the Elysée Chief had quite busy days; on December 14 he had lunch with António Costa, the Portuguese prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish PM, and Charles Michel, President of the European Council. According to The Guardian, top government officials were also present; the positive test results of Macron and his members of staff could shake the entire French State.

Spain: tough rules and a gift for Europe

This summer, Spain spread fear among its neighbours. While the contagion seemed to slow down in most of the EU, Spain had to cope with a sudden increase in cases. As a result, many European countries imposed PCR testing on tourists travelling back from Spain, causing a major blow to the touristic sector. In hindsight, these measures were probably too little too late. In fact, several scientists agreed that it is likely that the virus mutated somewhere in Spain and then travelled back home with European tourists, spreading a more contagious variant of COVID-19. In December, the Spanish government showed that they have learned from the mistakes of others; European and national citizens are required to show a negative PCR test certificate before entering the country. Once returned, they are forbidden to leave their municipalities during weekends.

Written by Tomás Vieira Silva and Barbara Polin, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.

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