Europe may be the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, as the World Health Organisation said last week. But for all those struck down by the virus — past and to come — the crisis has brought Europe’s nations one consolation: When faced with the choice between economic damage and human suffering, they knew what to do.
Across the world governments have tried to prevent and contain the virus’s spread, from the total lockdown in Italy to the shuttering of all shops and restaurants in France.
As multiple countries impose travel restrictions and close their gates, it becomes ever clearer where practical neighbourliness ends. The tough truth is that in this global emergency, while solidarity expands, the idea of “we” shrinks
The measures send a message: People matter more than profits. The pandemic, for all its disastrous effects, offers us an opportunity to recalibrate, to be reminded of higher values. Without health, all is nothing, including the economy.
We appear to sense deep inside that it will be easier to recover from a material downturn than from having to select who will live and who will die. The resourcefulness with which people have accepted and adjusted to their new reality testifies to that human intuition.
Solidarity is contagious
Solidarity proves to be contagious, too. In Italy, housebound people sing together from their balconies. In Germany, youth organisations of various political parties organise shopping trips to help the old. In Luxembourg, scouts offer to help all vulnerable members of society, from walking dogs to collecting prescriptions from the pharmacy.
But this solidarity seems to be bound by borders. As multiple countries impose travel restrictions and close their gates, it becomes ever clearer where practical neighbourliness ends. The tough truth is that in this global emergency, while solidarity expands, the idea of “we” shrinks.
My country (Germany) which takes some pride in being the European Union’s indispensable nation and economic powerhouse, is no exception — as Berlin’s approach to ventilators, Europe’s most wanted machines, shows.
Now is not the time for closing in on ourselves. Europe must step up its efforts, and Germany should lead the way.
Compared with other European states, Germany is by far best equipped to deal with the outbreak. Not only does it have a good number of intensive care beds — around 28,000 — it also possesses 25,000 ventilators, with 10,000 more on the way. France has only around 5,000 ventilators available.
Italian hospitals, confronting the world’s most severe coronavirus situation, are already triaging patients, forced by a lack of resources to make excruciating decisions about whom to treat and when. The country’s fatality rate is around 11 per cent, with 2,500 dead. In Germany, 26 patients have died.
So Germany has enough ventilators and can — by placing orders with domestic medical supply companies — produce more. And there’s a shortage elsewhere. Wouldn’t European solidarity mean Germany deliver at least some of the new ventilators to countries that currently need them most?
When I asked this question on Twitter, the quickest reaction came from those defending a narrow “we.” “If a German dies because of this, how do you want to explain?” one responded. “Do you want to let our parents and grandparents die?” another replied.
Of course, some German angst is justified. Chancellor Angela Merkel predicted last week that 60 per cent of the German population might get infected; everyone is free to do the math. If indeed 50 million of the 83 million people living in Germany catch the virus, even a low fatality rate of 0.7 per cent would mean 350,000 deaths. In other words, an abundance of ventilators today could turn into far too few tomorrow.
But is this anxiety worth a Europe in which, even for a short time, each ventilator in German hands means one more dead in Italy or France? While Germany stopped the export of protective medical gear, China sent a freight plane with thousands of respiratory masks and dozens of ventilators to Rome late last week.
And the European Union has struggled to come up with a continentwide approach, let alone carry one out. True, Merkel, like every chancellor before her, swore in her oath of office to protect the German people. Nobody expects her to endanger the lives of German citizens. But as the head of Europe’s strongest nation, she has a duty to explore how best to distribute medical relief throughout the European Union.
It is possible to protect the union without damaging the nation, even in this time of pandemic. A military or Lufthansa plane with a blue star-spangled banner on the tail and ventilator beds inside, ready to be deployed wherever the need is greatest, would be a good start.
— Jochen Bittner is a German journalist and editor