UK & Western Europe shut down to cope with Covid-19, US provides for free tests and paid leave

While borderless travel within the Europe Union was the norm, borders are now closed and cities locked down

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Ashis Ray

While one doesn’t know what the ground reality is in the second most populous nation in the world, namely India, because of its shallow rate of testing of the deadly coronavirus labelled COVID-19, transparently the epicentre of the highly contagious disease is now Europe. Italy, which reported a record 368 deaths in one day, is the worst buffeted by the ill-wind.

UK & Western Europe shut down to cope with Covid-19, US provides for free tests and paid leave

The pandemic is set to decimate the European, nay global, economy, with a collapse in GDP growth, if not a recession, followed by inflation, because of the money being pumped into the system by governments and central banks to shore up sinking markets. Following a videoconference between leaders of G7 countries (Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, the United States and Canada), a joint statement underlined the need of “a strongly coordinated international approach”.

Italy, Spain and France are in near complete lockdown; Germany, Britain, The Netherlands and Switzerland have imposed or recommended social distancing and self-isolation. Places of public assembly have been closed or advised to shut.

The 27-member-state European Union has blocked its borders to all non-essential travel for 30 days. “The less travel, the more we can contain the virus,” remarked European Commission President Ursula von der Layen. Where free of movement in a borderless swathe has been the hallmark of an integrated EU, several member nations have erected barriers on their frontiers. Indeed, it’s Fortress Europe. By the time this appears in print, the protective steps may have intensified further.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted: “These are measures that have never been seen before in our country.” French President Emmanuel Macron declared: “We are at war!” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in a rare broadcast to the nation said: “Many people have the feeling that we are on a roller coaster, which is going to ride faster and faster.” Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga emphasised: “We need a strong reaction across the country, and we need it now!” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been criticised for not reacting more aggressively, admitted: “It looks as though we are now approaching the fast growth part of the upward curve.” Scientists at Imperial College London, one of the world’s leading universities, who have been roped in to advice the United Kingdom government, warned that a quarter of a million people could die in the UK, if it did not step up its containment measures.

Why has Italy been so devastatingly struck? One assessment is the country has in percentage terms the second highest number of elderly people, who are the most vulnerable to the illness. The United Nations estimated, 28.6% of Italians were over the age of 60; second only to Japan at 33%. 90% of deaths in Italy have occurred among those above the age of 70.

The other theory is that while the first case of coronavirus in Lombardy in northern Italy was confirmed on 21 February, the infection was probably circulating in the region at least three weeks earlier. A third reason is said to be the low level of testing in the initial period, thereby cases going undetected or being identified too late, leading to the high mortality.

The counter argument is, there is evidence that in some instances people have been carriers and transmitters of the virus for at least two days before showing any symptoms, thus rendering it impossible for doctors to diagnose and take early action. The World Health Organisation on the one hand has been advocating “test, test, test”. On the other it recommends testing of “confirmed cases only if they show symptoms of COVID-19”

South Korea is being cited as a success story by way of controlling the virus. Its testing per million was among the most widespread in the world; far more than Italy. At the same time, those affected in South Korea were significantly younger people. Only 20% of cases were in the above-60 age group.

The largest contaminated segment were in their 20s – who accounted for 30% of all who were diagnosed with the illness. Also, 62% of coronavirus patients in South Korea have been women.

In China it has been determined that the death rate among men is 4.7% and when it comes to women it’s 2.8%. Besides, just 5% of South Korean women are smokers as compared to 20% of such persons in Italy.

The next most impacted country in Europe is Spain. In fact, the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s wife Maria Begona Gomez Fernandez tested positive for the virus. His government’s allegedly complacent approach and consequently a failure to take timely preventive measures has come in for censure. Spain now confronts the fastest growing contagion in Europe.

Spain is followed by France as far as number of deaths. Akin to other states, those who died were mostly elderly people with underlying health issues. In a society where kissing is an art form, Macron warned: “Behind every handshake, every kiss, there are more dead.”

If one is to put a finger on why Italy, Spain and France are at the forefront of the epidemic, it would perhaps be the fact that they are the three leading centres of international tourism. Therefore, interface with visitors from China, South Korea or Iran at some stage could be a cause of the crisis.

But as the pandemic expands and America comes into focus, the United States is a country of real concern. As a result of its president, Donald Trump, being in denial, it was woefully unprepared in terms of testing and treatment capability to combat a mass outbreak. It is now having to play catch-up.

But months of neglect, a ridiculous blaming of the problem on China, has created a cleavage between incidence and response; which could trigger avoidable deaths. As Kent Sepkowitz, a doctor at Sloan Kettering hospital in New York, put it on CNN: “The blundering lack of an effective testing program in the US is an unconscionable failure and has led (and will lead) to more transmission of COVID-19.”

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