Europe’s Battle-Hardened Nations Show Resilience in Virus Fight

BRUSSELS — As the coronavirus has hopscotched the world, a paradox has emerged: Rich nations are not necessarily better at fighting the crisis than poorer ones.

In Europe, the disease has been burning through Britain, France and Italy, three of the continent’s four biggest economies.

But smaller, poorer nations in Europe quickly imposed and enforced tough restrictions, stuck to them, and have so far fared better at keeping the virus contained.

Those countries, some of which are now cautiously opening up their economies and societies, were also those that could draw on deep reservoirs of resilience born of relatively recent hardship.

Compared to what their people had been through not long ago, the stringent lockdowns seemed less arduous, apparently prompting a larger social buy-in.

The nations include many in the former Communist East, as well as Greece and Croatia, where the authorities are cautiously optimistic about their people’s endurance in the face of adversity.

Cautiously emerging from weeks at home with his wife and two young daughters, Ive Morovic, a 45-year-old barber in the Croatian coastal town of Zadar, cast his mind back to the war in the early ’90s, when he was charged with running to the top of a nearby hill to sound the air raid siren.

“I was a kid, I remember playing soccer and seeing mortars falling out of the sky,” he said. He believes the disciplined, collected way in which Croats have responded to the pandemic harks back to wartime and the legacy of communism.

“People today are afraid, and the discipline we all learned helps us get in line and creates some sort of forced unity,” he said.

Analyzing the different pandemic responses, academics at Oxford University have developed a stringency scale, an effort to rank the toughness of the measures governments took to stop the spread of the virus.

Overall, stringency is higher in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, said Thomas Hale, associate professor in public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University and the project’s leader. Many of those European countries are governed by strong-state, center-right administrations.

“Croatia went to the max of our stringency scale, there is a strong official response,” Mr. Hale said. Echoing Mr. Morovic’s thoughts on discipline, he added, “It is possible that people are less willing to push back and they are willing to accept harsher measures.”

The handling enabled Croatia on April 27 to be among the first to cautiously ease some restrictions. Greece lifted its strict lockdown May 4, and other nations in Eastern Europe, such as the Czech Republic and Slovenia, which also took stringent early measures, have been gradually returning to a sense of normalcy.

A word sometimes applied to societies in these parts of Europe is “resilient,” used in academic circles to describe areas, usually in the developing world, where policymakers try to support communities living in disaster zones or extreme poverty.

Prof. Frosso Motti-Stefanidi, who teaches at the University of Athens and is a global authority on this kind of resilience, said the trait was best defined as a person or society doing well in spite of experiencing acute stress or long-term adversity.

In the context of this pandemic, she said, resilience alone does not explain why some countries are handling the crisis better: The positive outcomes rely on citizens believing the measures a government is taking are appropriate, leading to trust and compliance.

Resilience and stringency go hand in hand to confront the outbreak, she said.

Greece is emerging from a lockdown with a low death toll and relatively high morale, even as it faces a recession.

The country has recorded the relatively tiny number of 151 virus deaths so far, just 1.4 per 100,000 people, and Professor Motti-Stefanidi credited the government’s frank and persuasive approach for motivating citizens to respect the tight lockdown measures.

Confronted by financial collapse in Europe and across the world, many Greeks have sounded a stoic note, citing lessons from the past decade when the country lost a quarter of its economy. The latest forecasts see Greece’s economy shrinking by 9.7 percent this year, the worst recession in the European Union.

“In 2008, after Lehman collapsed, it took me three years to rebuild my business,” said Eleni Apostolidi, a massage therapist in Athens. “Then, during the Greek debt crisis, I was almost out of work for another three years, and had to fight hard to keep my family afloat,” she added.

Ms. Apostolidi, who has a 15-year-old son and who also cares for her parents and uncles and aunts who live in her apartment building, said she was oddly optimistic in the face of this new calamity.

“We’ve been through a lot, we are hardened, so I think we’re going to be able to rebuild,” she said. “We thought we were spoiled before the financial crisis, but now we can see we are resilient,” she added.

In Croatia, Mr. Morovic said he was confident that the country was on track to stay healthy even as it reopened, but he was ready to go back into lockdown if the virus returned.

“We’ve found which are the at-risk groups. We should make sure they’re staying isolated and safe while young people return to work,” he said.

“Obviously, if new infections return we should all close up again,” he added.

Joe Orovic contributed reporting from Zadar, Croatia, and Monika Pronzcuk from Brussels.

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