Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 52, 18 March 2020

Coronavirus & Europe: Shut down in Italy and Spain, and the danger in Germany
Sourina Bej

The numbers 

In Europe, Italy registered the most cases (outside China) at more than 31,500. The country witnessed another surge in the number of deaths on 17 March, from 2,150 to 2,503. The country remains in lockdown. Since it began on 20 February with three cases of coronavirus in Lombardy, the number of cases surged to more than 30,000 in less than a month in Italy. The health officials in Italy have concluded that the virus arrived in Italy long before the first case was discovered. Italy was experiencing an unusually high number of pneumonia cases in its northern provinces. Around 26 February, Austria, Croatia, Greece, Norway, Switzerland, Georgia, and North Macedonia reported their first coronavirus cases. Many of them involved people who had been to Italy. Italian researchers at the Sacco hospital in Milan have identified two variations of coronavirus, including a local variant that may have circulated for several weeks before the first identified case in northern Italy. The second variant spread across Europe through people with travel history in Italy or in the Middle East. Denmark registered its first case from Iran and the other two with travel history in Egypt.

Since the spread from Italy, the number of confirmed cases in France grew by more than 16 per cent on 17 March, at 7,730 confirmed cases, 1,097 more than the previous day. The death toll rose to 175, with 7 per cent of the dead aged under 65. More than 2,500 people are being treated in hospital, including 699 in intensive care. In Britain, the death toll is 71. The number of confirmed cases in Spain has soared by 2,000 to 11,178. Authorities there are maintaining a partial lockdown on 47 million people. It is now the second European country to be worst-affected after Italy. Germany has had more than 8,000 confirmed cases and 13 deaths. The Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar has announced a possible 15,000 cases of coronavirus before the end of March.  

Government initiatives

EU proposed the strictest travel ban with Belgium and France joining Spain and Italy in complete lockdown. Meanwhile countries like Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, unilaterally have begun imposing border checks. 

In Italy, under the new lockdown legislation, people can be issued fines for travelling within or outside the country without a permit. All public events have been banned, and schools have been cancelled throughout the country. Public spaces, such as gymnasiums, theatres, and cinemas, have also been closed down by the government. Individuals who defy the lockdown could face up to three months in jail or a fine of $234. The new rules prohibit inmates from having visitors or day releases, which set off protests at 27 prisons throughout the country. Similar rules have been imposed in France where citizens who leave home must now carry a document detailing the reasons why, with fines for transgressors to be set at €135 ($150; £123).  In Britain, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has unveiled a financial package worth £330bn ($400bn) to ease the burden on the people. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 16 March has urged people to avoid pubs, clubs, and cafes. At midnight on 17 March, Spain began stopping cars crossing its borders from France and Portugal with a rule that only Spanish nationals, residents and cross-border workers were being allowed to enter the country.

Germany has banned religious services and would proceed with an airlift of its nationals in other countries.

The EU travel ban and move to seal its borders will apply to 26 EU states as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland with the exception of the UK. Free travel is a cherished principle within the European border-free Schengen area but as many countries unilaterally impose full or partial border shutdowns in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the EU travel ban is a prompted decision by the EU Commission. 

Public responses 

The initial responses of the virus were racist slur and contempt against the Asians in Europe. Cases of Sinophobia were increasingly observed in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. This propelled many Asians of Chinese, Vietnamese and South Korean origin to take to social media with a counter-narrative on "I am not the Virus." As the cases of coronavirus started increasing in Europe, the partial to complete lockdown has led people to adopt social distancing goals as the new SDG to contain the coronavirus spread. The people in Spain and Italy have used social media to record and spread the messages on how life looks in a quarantine. The social etiquette of handshakes has been increasingly replaced with a nod to 'namaste.'

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