The coronavirus knows no borders – European solidarity is what we need

IW – 03/2020

The corona pandemic is directly impacting all of us in our daily lives. Not only on a human level, but also economically. Europe had initially underestimated this unknown threat. As recently as January 2020, China was still considered the epicenter of the corona virus and the COVID-19 respiratory disease. A short time later it was in Europe. The new pathogen, for which there is still no drug or vaccine, has spread worldwide at breathtaking speed.

With the number of cases and deaths rising daily, many countries have put in place severe restrictions on economic activity and daily life. The aim is to slow down the spread of this invisible threat and prevent health systems from collapsing. Six months ago, it would have almost been impossible to imagine schools, shops and restaurants closing, quarantines and travel restrictions being imposed, social contact being banned, and lockdowns being put in place. However, we have also seen that the way each EU Member State has handled the epidemic is very different.

On the one hand, this is understandable, because there is a lot at stake and it is not easy to find the right balance: human health and lives, the survival of entire economies and fundamental civil liberties. On the other hand, the end result seems to many to be a hodgepodge of measures that were not always well communicated. A lack of coordination over border closures and controls and the question of what level of internal (and external!) European solidarity can be achieved in the event of a crisis without jeopardising the provision of services to EU citizens has caused concern for many Europeans. At least people have been learning from each other quickly, albeit not quick enough, as it has turned out.

Although the EU has limited resources and infrastructure when it comes to health and internal security policy, greater European solidarity is now the order of the day. It is important that the Member States help each other. The many examples of support show that we are now back on the right path. Medical supplies have been sent to countries particularly affected by the Corona pandemic, and countries such as Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland have received and treated COVID-19 patients from Italy and France in their own hospitals. Czechia has sent protective suits to Italy and Spain.

However, solidarity must not be limited to managing shortages across borders when it is already too late. Rather, we must look to the future and do everything possible to avoid a repeat of the dramatic events we are experiencing today by expanding the necessary research and treatment capacities, as well as (emergency) infrastructures. This may well be a huge European project to which everyone will have to contribute.

The coronavirus does not stop at national borders, or the borders of Europe. No region will be able to meet the challenges we face around the world on its own. That is why the World Health Organisation will have to play a far greater role in the future. This is just the beginning. As far as the EU’s contribution is concerned, the European Commission has managed to standardise the response to coronavirus and has introduced various measures. In order to ease the critical supply shortage of personal protective equipment for the foreseeable future, the European Commission began to purchase protective masks as early as February.

Meanwhile, the additional supplies needed will are also being procured centrally on behalf of the Member States. 90% of the purchase costs for tests, ventilators and protective equipment will be financed by the EU, and currently manufacturers seem to be able to meet the demand for masks and safety glasses.

The Corona pandemic has completely changed the world from one day to the next. No one could have imagined such a state of emergency in public services. In the current crisis, and the even more serious and protracted one that is still to come, it is more important than ever to pull together and develop approaches for not only Europe but also possibly the entire globe.

Commentary by Ilka Wölfle, Director of the European Representation of the German Social Insurance