Health

Brussels thinks global on coronavirus, but local fears mount

Viruses dont respect borders. But COVID-19 is renewing Europes obsession with them.

Monday was supposed to be all about Europes global cooperation to block the spread of coronavirus in Africa. Instead, as the death toll in Italy ticked up, EU officials found themselves on the defensive about free movement within the bloc.

“This is a global challenge,” said Janez Lenarčič, the Commissions emergency response chief, as he announced €232 million in new funding to fight the outbreak.

Yet the infusion of cash that will largely go toward boosting weaker health systems was planned before the outbreak intensified in the EUs third-largest economy over the weekend. About €114 million is earmarked for the World Health Organizations efforts worldwide to fight the disease. Another €15 million is going to boost diagnostic capacity in Africa.

The coronavirus will be a top agenda item when Commission officials gather in Ethiopia for meetings with their African Union counterparts later this week. A pandemic in Europes southern neighbor, with its frail health systems, presents a nightmare scenario. While few African cases have been reported, experts are skeptical that continent has truly been spared, pointing instead to its limited testing facilities.

The growing outbreak in Italy, however, dominated the discussion on Monday — as did the possibility of restricting the EUs open borders.

By comparison, even the growing cluster in Italy seems manageable. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Sunday that while theres now a “moderate to high” risk that similar clusters of infections will emerge, the overall threat level in the EU and U.K. remains “low to moderate.”

“The member states health care systems are very well prepared to cope with these diseases,” said Commission spokesperson Vivian Loonela.

The growing outbreak in Italy, however, dominated the discussion on Monday — as did the possibility of restricting the EUs open borders.

Publicly, Lenarčič and Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides stressed on Monday morning that while countries may close their borders when theres a public health case, the evidence isnt there yet.

EU Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides gives a joint press conference on the coronavirus in Brussels on February 24, 2020 | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Amid an “evolving” situation, Kyriakides said, “We need to be extremely vigilant, but on the other hand base our decisions on risk assessment and scientific advice.”

Privately, Commission officials speaking to reporters responded to persistent questions on Schengen closures and internal capacity by pleading with them to understand that coronavirus is a global story, not just a European one.

Yet over the course of an hour of questions devoted to the virus at the public midday press briefing, the death toll in Italy rose from four to five — a sixth was announced later on Monday afternoon. Experts from the ECDC and the WHO will visit the country on Tuesday.

Italy is grappling with more than 200 diagnoses, prompting school closures, canceled festivals and shuttered businesses in the northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy. The Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini has called for suspending the Schengen treaty to close the countrys borders — a move rejected by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Other countries have inched toward their own restrictions. Austria temporarily shut down railway service on Sunday night, and Romania introduced quarantines for people arriving from the affected regions.

Poland hasnt seen any coronavirus cases yet. But in a bid to relieve collective anxiety, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called a press conference to announce new thermometers on planes, text messages to Poles abroad and laboratories on standby.

Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini has since been hospitalized with an upper respiratory infection and fever, Read More – Source