Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
As Covid-19 cases continue to climb, the U.K and E.U. are banning events, closing schools, and sealing borders to slow the spread of the virus.
On March 12, the Danish parliament escalated the fight against coronavirus by approving an emergency law that represents possibly the strictest set of measures to fight the pandemic yet adopted by any European country.
Closing schools and public offices and banning assemblies of more than 100 people, the Danish authorities now have the power to force residents to be tested for the virus; for those who test positive, they now have the power to enforce their isolation. To make sure these rules are followed, police can enter homes and private property without a warrant, bar people from public institutions and public transit, and request passenger lists from ships or planes arriving in the country. The law even allows the government to seize private property if doing so can prevent coronavirus sufferers from breaking the rules on isolation.
Such a regulation might have seemed unthinkable just days ago — especially as it will not expire until March 2021. But with Covid-19 cases surging in France, Germany and Spain, the draconian nature of Denmark’s measures may well be intended to quell public nerves.
The blanket of anti-coronavirus measures covering Europe is still currently more of a loosely stitched patchwork than a single shield. Italy, by far the worst-affected country on the continent with more than 15,000 diagnosed cases and over 1,000 deaths, has gone furthest in the cancel-everything department, closing all shops except for grocery stores and pharmacies, and banning non-essential travel between cities (or between communes in large cities such as Rome). The country has also closed schools, universities, bars, nightclubs and theaters and put a 6 p.m. curfew on restaurants, in which customers must be able to sit at least a meter apart. On March 13, Austria joined Italy by closing all but food stores and pharmacies.
Elsewhere, schools have either closed or will close on Monday in France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Belgium, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Lithuania, Slovenia, Albania, Moldova and North Macedonia. Closures are also taking place in some regions of Ukraine, Spain, Croatia, Switzerland and Slovakia. Schools remain open in the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland.
Public gatherings are increasingly being banned too, but with no consensus as yet on what a safe number of people might be. Events of more than 1,000 people have been banned in Luxembourg, Brussels and much of Germany and Spain, while in Sweden the cut-off is 500 people. Hungary, Austria and Ireland are placing a cap of 500 people outdoors and 100 indoors. Bulgaria is instituting a blanket 250-person cap; France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Lithuania and Estonia have put the bar at 100 people. The Czech Republic has gone down to a maximum of 30. In some countries, assembly is being banned by location as well as crowd size. Belgium and Slovakia have halted religious services, while nightclubs and gyms have closed in Greece and Albania.
Meanwhile, once-open borders within the E.U. are being sealed back up. Austria is barring entry from Italy, to which Switzerland has also closed nine border crossings, while the Czech Republic has effectively closed its border for 30 days, allowing in only Czech citizens and allowing out only people who live within 50 kilometers of the border who can prove they commute to jobs abroad.
By contrast, the U.K., is taking a more hands-off approach: No travel restrictions have been imposed on people entering or leaving, and there are no caps on any public gatherings. Employers are, however, encouraged to let staff work from home.
Coronavirus testing levels across Europe are just as variable, though the limited data available shows European states to be uniformly — indeed strikingly — ahead of the U.S. on the testing and tracking front. Using data compiled on March 10 from releases by national health ministries and disease prevention bodies, Oxford University data researchers Our World in Data determined that Italy had tested one in every 993 of its population, Austria had tested one in 1,770, the U.K. one in 2,572 and the Czech Republic one in 11,476. All these countries sit far behind South Korea’s testing regime, which had screened one for every 241 inhabitants by that date.
By comparison, the United States — where unavailability of Covid-19 tests has been one focus of growing outrage over the sluggish federal response — succeeded in testing just one out of every 38,373 residents.
It’s far too early to tell how the coronavirus crisis could reshape the already-fraught dynamics of the U.K. and the E.U, though the backlash against those governments that are seen to fail their countries will likely be harsh. A March 12 speech from French President Emmanuel Macron, generally an advocate of strongly market-led government, might nonetheless hint that we’ll be seeing renewed arguments for a return to more comprehensive social benefits, following decades of trans-continental attacks on state welfare systems.
“There are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market,” Macron said in a televised address Thursday night. “To delegate our food, our protection, our ability to care, our living environment, basically to others, is madness. What this pandemic is already revealing is that free health care [and] our welfare state are not costs or charges, but precious goods, essential assets when fate strikes.”