Coronavirus around Europe: Questions and concerns remain as countries move towards easing restrictions

Coronavirus around Europe: Questions and concerns remain as countries move towards easing restrictions
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen (R) speaks with pupils as Denmark began reopening schools. AFP
While curves are flattening and countries around Europe are moving towards ending restrictions many questions and worries remain about what life after lockdown will hold for us all. Here's the latest insights from our journalists and contributors on what's happening around Europe.
'When can we start visiting friends and family,' Helena Bachmann, Lake Geneva, Switzerland
 
In ten days, our life will start to get back on track. Sort of.
 
That’s what the Federal Council announced yesterday when it outlined a three-step plan to gradually lift the restrictions put into place on March 16th.
 
“We’ll be moving as quickly as possible, but as slowly as necessary”, Health Minister Alain Berset said, coining what has already become a new catchphrase here.
 
As of April 27th , when the de-confinement will begin, hairdressers, massage therapists, and beauty salons will be among the first to re-open, along with garden centres, hardware stores, and florists.
 
A father plays football with his son next to a bench closed with red-and-white police warning tape in Plainpalais place in Geneva on April 16, 2020. AFP
 
Non-emergency medical procedures, which had been restricted since mid-March, will also be authorised from that date on.
 
These services will be the first allowed to resume because they involve few direct contacts and can easily set up protective measures for their clients.
 
Because social distancing measures, the authorities keep telling us, are here to stay for a long time
 
Two weeks later, on May 11th , classes in obligatory schools will resume. All other shops will re-open as well.
 
Then, on June 8th, secondary and vocational schools, as well as universities, will start; entertainment and leisure facilities like museums, libraries, botanical gardens, and zoos are expected to re-open too.
 

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All that is good because any step towards ‘normal’ life – no matter how small— is still better than none at all. Simple pleasures like having a haircut and a massage, or buying fresh flowers may seem trivial, but after six weeks of confinement, those activities are a welcome change of pace.
 
But some questions are still on people’s minds:
 
The government has not provided clear responses to other issues that are important to us as well: How long will older people and those at risk for complications have to remain confined? And what about masks for this vulnerable population — should they wear them and, if so, are there enough masks to go around?
 
We’d like answers to these question but the authorities don’t have them, and this uncertainty is unsettling. One thing is sure though: Covid-19 is still with us and if the number of infections, hospitalisations, and deaths surges, we’ll be locked down again.
 
So, even though we are slowly moving toward a measure of ‘normality’, we are well aware that the situation is still precarious: if we are not careful, one step forward could mean two steps back.
 
Read more on The Local Switzerland
 

 
'Is Norway really ready to open up again?', Stine Bergo, Oslo

On Monday, Norway will take its first steps back towards normality. Kids will be sent back to nurseries and schools. Some people will go back to work. We can even drive off to our dear countrycabins again. 

About time, some say. We have been behaving pretty exemplary for a very long time now. We even ditched our outdoors and had an indoor Easter. We suffered the stick and now we are ready for our carrot, please.

But others are getting cold feet. Are we really ready to open up our societies again? Forty percent said they were against the planned relief of restrictions, according to a recent poll

Like the Danes, Norwegians have a Facebook-group called “My child will not be a test rabbit for Covid-19” (Barnet mitt skal ikke være prøvekanin for covid-19) with  thousands of members fearing for their children’s health. Some parents have declared they will keep their kids home.

But coronavirus numbers keep falling. Today, only 174 people are in hospital, a drop from 250 on April 7th, the day the government put forth its relief plans. 

A man holds a smartphone showing a tracking and tracing app launched by the National Institute of Public Health to try to halt a return of the new coronavirus, on April 17, 2020 in Oslo. AFP

More testing and a new contagion tracking app, Smittestopp (“contagion stop”, heavily disputed and criticised) are supposed to keep things under control. 

The Norwegian Directorate of Health recently stated that gatherings of thirty to a hundred people are “unlikely to happen this year.” Tell that to the flocks of people walking the most popular hikes in the Oslo area. 

I keep having to remind myself that we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic. As spring is settling in, people are taking to parks, eating pizza and drinking beer outside. We are supposed to keep in groups of less than five, but few seem fussed about these rules. 

It’s safe to say that Norway has suffered much less than other countries. But scientists say a new wave of contagion is likely to hit. The question is, will we get away this cheaply next time.

 
'What will happen to France's elderly population?', Emma Pearson, Paris 
 
Considering that French residents have just been told they will be remaining under conditions of strict lockdown for another month, the mood in the country is surprisingly upbeat.
 
And that is because as he announced the extension of the lockdown until May 11th, president Emmanuel Macron also laid out the framework for the gradual loosening of the lockdown.
 
We know it won't be immediate and it won't be all at once, but having an exit strategy in sight is psychologically helpful.
 
At present it really is just a framework – schools and businesses will start to reopen in a gradual process from May 11th, bars, restaurants and cafés will stay closed until the early summer and public gatherings will not be allowed until at least mid July.
 
French President Emmanuel Macron, wearing a face mask, talks with health workers as he visits a medical centre in Pantin. AFP
 
And in the days after Macron's Easter Monday announcement (which drew a TV audience of 36.7 million people, beating by 13 million the 2018 football match which saw France winning the World Cup) more questions have arisen.
 
The big one for foreign residents in France is international travel – nothing was said about this leaving us none the wiser about when we can expect to see our loved ones in other countries again.
 
The other big question for the many people who retire to France is what happens to the over 70s. We know they are being asked to stay confined for longer than the rest of the country but so far there has been no information on how long or under what conditions.
 
But while questions certainly remain, and while we know we are unlikely to be back to anything approaching full normality until late summer, we can at last see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it is just a pinprick right now.
 
 
 
 
'How many will die, not from the virus, but from poverty?' Graham Keeley, Barcelona

Spain eased its lockdown this week. Or at least that is how the outside world saw it. 

In fact, what happened was things went back to how they were just over two weeks ago before we went into what has been called 'economic hibernation' -everyone staying inside except essential workers. 

So from this week,  workers in construction and manufacturing could return to work, in order to free up two vital sectors of the economy.  But the lockdown remained for the vast majority of us. Remember we cannot go for strolls and children are confined to the house. 

Speaking to those who were going back, I found mixed feelings about this. Almost all were worried about contracting coronavirus, of course. 

Yet, at the same time, many were relieved to be getting out of the house after a month being confined at home. For others, it was crucial that they returned to work or the business would most likely go to the wall.

A healthcare worker takes a swab sample from an employee of the Hospital Sant Miquel care home for the elderly during a COVID-19 coronavirus testing campaign in Barcelona. AFP

For the rest of us, there was the concern that this cautious opening up of the economy might result in a rise in cases, thereby wasting the efforts of 47 million Spaniards who had largely obeyed the lockdown. 

However, an epidemiologist I spoke to put the government's gamble into context, saying when it took this decision it had to weigh up immediate health priorities as well as the effects on the economy. 

“There are number of people who may die not from the virus but from poverty,” he said. 

It made me think. 

At the back of everyone's minds in Spain is the prospect of what comes next once we are allowed out. 

The IMF's prediction is Spain's GDP will fall 8% and unemployment will rise from 14% to 20%. Most people expect it to be higher. 

And then there is the prospect of a resurgence of the virus. According to experts, during the Spanish flu after the First World War, secondary waves of the flu were best contained in places where the politicians acted together as a united force. 

A quick glance at the political squabbling in Spain this week – where Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, and Pablo Casado, the leader of the opposition cannot even agree when to meet – and I do not hold out much hope that this is likely.

Spain is too polarised a society. 

Read more on The Local Spain

'Will the outbreak worsen outside Stockholm?', Emma Löfgren, Stockholm, Sweden

Sweden has failed to protect its elderly residents from the coronavirus, its officials have conceded. And with half of Stockholm’s coronavirus deaths having happened in care homes, and around a third in Sweden as a whole, that much is blindingly obvious to anyone. 

Sweden is now rolling out more coronavirus tests for key workers, for example care home staff, police officers, and workers in other important roles, authorities announced on Friday. They are aiming to test around 50,000-100,000 people a week once the new strategy gets under way.

There is light on the horizon for Sweden at the moment, although such reports are still very tentative. Due to a lag in reporting, we had expected the number of new cases to rise sharply this week after Easter weekend, but that increase has not happened at the time of writing.

It looks, therefore, like the curve is flattening. But again, we have to wait and see.

The number of patients in intensive care units has been fairly stable this week. But Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, whose calm-under-pressure personality has contributed to a popularity boost in the polls, warned that we will have to “count the dead in the thousands” by the time this is over. We all need to step up and do our part to help protect each other, his message was. 

It seems that most people heeded calls to stay at home over Easter, and the streets of Sweden’s cities have been emptier than normal. But it is hard to tell the story of a country, with all its layers of complexity. Images of Stockholmers eating and drinking in the sun have been doing the rounds on social media, next to images of a near-empty metro at rush hour. They’re all just snapshots. Sometimes we have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. 

Sometimes we won’t even know what the bigger picture actually was until afterwards. Sweden has so far had far more deaths than its Nordic neighbours. Its Nordic neighbours, meanwhile, are worrying that they will see a spike in new cases as they start to ease restrictions on life. 

It feels like most people are trying to keep their head down and get on with things at the moment, but some of the main concerns remain: protecting the elderly, whether the outbreak will start getting worse outside of Stockholm – the city worst hit by the virus so far – and how this is going to affect the economy in the long run. Few aspects of life are untouched by this.

For now, we’re all just trying to live our lives as best we can, waiting for better days.

Read more on The Local Sweden

'How can young children keep to social distancing.' Emma Firth, Copenhagen, Denmark

It’s been a big week for Denmark. It became the first country in Europe to start reopening schools and day care institutions after lockdown from the coronavirus. 

On Wednesday, around half the country’s primary schools, nurseries and kindergartens opened their doors to greet their children back. But it was not the same place the children had left just over a month ago.

As parents dropped off their children in a staggered approach, the first routine of the day was washing hands. This has to be repeated at least every two hours. There could not be any hugs as friends were reunited and for those in nurseries, many of their usual toys were not there – to reduce the amount of twice daily cleaning. Outside play and learning in small groups is a key part of the day now, along with sitting at desks or tables at a two-metre distance.

It’s an anxious time for everyone involved. I’ve spoken to teachers who although supportive of the reopening, are worried as to how they can meet all the requirements, on top of not getting sick. Parents are adjusting to a new way of life for their children; others have decided to keep them at home. In fact many day care institutions, mine included, have asked parents to do this because there is no longer a safe amount of space for the children, under new requirements. Plans are being put in place to use other available space and playgrounds.

Parents with their children stand in queue waiting to get inside Stengaard School north of Copenhagen, Denmark, on April 15, 2020, after the new coronavirus lockdown. AFP

Reopening after lockdown is not an easy task. But the government is confident that Denmark is ready, as the curve continues to flatten. 321 people have died so far with the coronavirus in Denmark. The number of infected patients in hospital has been steadily declining for more than two weeks. Yesterday there were 353 patients with the coronavirus in Denmark's hospitals.

These figures are better than the government had hoped for – so much so that this morning it was announced that even more sectors will reopen next week: hairdressers, driving schools, research laboratories, courts and other professions. The opposition party wanted to extend that to even more, including high schools. It will be both welcome and concerning news to many, as Denmark continues to step into the unknown. 

People are worried the youngest children won’t be able to keep to all the distancing and hygiene rules and therefore pick up and spread infection, whether that is a common cold or the coronavirus. The knock-on effect of this is that parents, teachers and pædagog (nursery workers) could become unwell and have to take time off, leaving institutions with not enough staff to keep up with the new guidelines.

Others are concerned about a spike in cases of the coronavirus and an increased pressure on hospitals. And then there’s the question of how long this new way of life can realistically function. It’s walking a tightrope, as Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen put it. And Denmark’s nerve and world-renowned trust, is being tested.

'Parents still wonder when can they return to work', Rachel Stern, Berlin, Germany

Friday started off on a particularly optimistic note for Germany: the coronavirus outbreak is “under control” stated health minister Jens Spahn. There are more recoveries than new infections being recorded everyday.

The news followed Chancellor Angela’s Merkel’s announcement on Wednesday that several of Germany’s restrictions would soon be relaxed – from businesses of up to 800 square metres being allowed to reopen on Monday to schools welcoming students again on May 4th.

But does that mean that German residents themselves can relax and return to their pre-corona lives? Not quite. While the country has laid out several specific dates and details, several others remain up in the air.

It’s still not clear when restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels can open up again, nor when religious institutions can hold services. Daycare centres, or kitas, also remain closed indefinitely, leading some parents wondering not if, but when, they can return to work. 

Volunteers at the kitchen Bisamkiez take a rest during the meal preparations for deprived children out of school in Potsdam, eastern Germany, AFP

Even though Merkel’s government has banned “large events” until August 31st, it’s unclear what size exactly this encompasses.

But as a federal country with 16 states, Germany has set a blanket regulation with room for regional variation. Social distancing measures – mandating that no more than two people outside of the same household can be outside together at once – will stay in place until May 3rd.

Yet beyond that, every state will set its rules slightly differently. Bavarian leader Markus Söder is arguing to retain tough restrictions while North Rhine-Westphalia premier Armin Laschet is advocating to loosen them even faster. Berlin's mayor Michael Müller is even in favour of allowing smaller demonstrations to take place on the streets again. 

Yet whether you’re for tightening or trimming down the rules, it’s still a time to remain vigilant. As Germany recorded over 138,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and over 4,000 deaths, as of Friday afternoon, many are still heeding to Merkel’s words that “”caution should be the watchword, not over-confidence”.

Read more on The Local Germany

'Will we have to spend the summer sat indoors?', Clare Speak, Bari, Italy

Right now in Italy we all want to know what the planned “phase two” of lockdown will have in store, but so far the government isn't giving anything away. One thing we do know is that lockdown will end very gradually.

The focus will no doubt be on restarting the economy. Italy is anxious to get back to work – and yet at the same time, few people seem to think ending the shutdown is a good idea just yet. 

The Italian government did announce the first loosening of the rules – a very short list of businesses, including bookshops, were allowed to reopen this week. And yet, many regions opted to keep tougher rules in place and refused to allow reopenings. In other areas, some business owners decided they'd rather not open the shutters, even though they could.

And 82 percent of The Local's readers living in Italy insisted lockdown should continue, despite them feeling “anxiety, financial strain and heartbreak”.

Not knowing how long this may last is another cause of worry.

People wearing protective masks, read the newspaper as they sit in a square in the district of Monteverde Nuovo in Rome on April 16, 2020. AFP

People are anxious about the prospect of spending summer shut indoors. Enduring July and August in Italy without the beach is unthiinkable. People are looking for reassurance that this won't happen, that we'll be able to travel within the country, or at least get outside, by the time the heat arrives in June.

And yet, we're more anxious about seeing the number of new infections go down. The numbers are falling, slowly. But the official death toll is still between 500-600 daily. It's still an extremely worrying situation, and many people aren't so sure anymore that they want to rush outside.

Since lockdown began across Italy more than five weeks ago, people have been writing words of encouragement on signs in windows and on balconies, and all over social media. Even the bag my takeaway came in last night had hearts and encoraging words scribbled on it.

Andrà tutto bene (everythng will be alright) has become the unofficial Italian quarantine slogan, closely followed by forza! “Come on!/you can do it!). But as the shutdown stretches on for weeks and maybe even months to come, the word we're going to need most is pazienza, patience.

Between the government's silence on future plans, and the prospect of a summer without travel, we're going to need a big dose of it to get through the next stage of lockdown – whatever it looks like.

Read more on The Local Italy

 

 
 

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