Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 30 May 2020

100 days of coronavirus: Life in Europe turned upside down

After China, Europe was named the active centre of the global pandemic, and now accounts for almost three quarters of the world’s cases

Concrete barriers and fences on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. EPA
Concrete barriers and fences on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. EPA

Roadblocks on the borders of the Netherlands and Belgium, which had not been in place for almost 75 years, are among the visual symbols of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe.

As the number of cases worldwide crossed the 1 million mark, almost 700,000 had been diagnosed in Europe.

This caseload far exceeded Asia, where the original outbreak occurred, and North America, where the US authorities have struggled to get a grip on the crisis.

Daily life in many parts of Europe has been upended with restrictions on people leaving their homes and recruitment of a vast army of professionals and volunteers to shore up the medical systems.

Our writers have spoken to people affected by the crisis to give a snapshot of how much life has changed in just a few weeks.

The Netherlands

Dentist Marielle Van Weedy runs her own practice in the town of Breda, not far from the border with Belgium.

Having been forced to shut her clinic to the public, Dr Van Weedy now works in emergency practice in both countries.

“One day I was working normally, seeing regular and new patients, and then suddenly we were being told that we could only do emergency treatments and for the rest of the time be at home with the children," she said.

Having signed up for coronavirus response, Dr Van Weedy has seen the new system of controls up close.

“I work twice a week in Belgium and there are very strict controls on the border, which is just a few miles away from here,” she said.

Protective clothing worn by medical professionals. Courtesy Marielle Van Weedy
Protective clothing worn by medical professionals. Courtesy Marielle Van Weedy

“You cannot get in and out of the country unless you have a very good reason for doing so, and so I need to show my ID, proof of my profession and a 'vignet', which is a permit I need to display in the car.”

Dr Van Weedy worries that health workers are not properly protected.

The Dutch government last week had to recall a million face masks delivered from China after discovering that 600,000 of them were defective.

Such has been the urgency for masks that some of her patients have been making batches at home and taking them to the surgery for the staff to use.

“As dentists, the nature of our work means we are up close with every patient, and so when treating emergency patients we need to wear the full personal protection," Dr Van Weedy said.

Greece

The first confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Greek migrant camps were reported last week, leading to two on the mainland being quarantined and concerns for those on the islands.

Strict lockdown measures in the camps have made residents feel isolated and bored, said Olivia SeQueira, 25, a project manager for the charity Drapen I Havet (Drop in the Ocean).

Those in Skaramagas camp outside Athens have “not been as concerned about the virus" as those who had normal freedom until the pandemic.

Greece's mainland migrant camps have been placed under strict lockdown rules. AFP
Greece's mainland migrant camps have been placed under strict lockdown rules. AFP

“Being told not to go outside and having our movement restricted is huge news to the population as a whole, but is actually something residents have been used to for a long time,” Ms SeQueira said.

An hourly announcement over the camp’s public address system, broadcast in Arabic, Farsi and French, reminds residents to wash their hands, not touch their faces and try to stay apart from other people.

The 2,500 there have better access to hygiene than Greece’s overcrowded camps. “We haven’t got any known cases of coronavirus in the camp at the moment,” Ms SeQueira said.

The pandemic poses a significant challenge to refugee aid groups, who now face staffing shortages and new limits on the help they can provide.

“We’re all working with very reduced manpower,” Ms SeQueira said. “In my organisation, everyone’s left. They’ve gone back to their home countries, apart from my team in Athens.”

The charity’s volunteers have been forced to make dramatic cuts to services they provide to camp residents.

Ms SeQueira worries most about the effect of the pandemic on Greece’s island camps.

“If there is an outbreak in one of those camps it will be impossible to contain,” she said.

Denmark

Joachim Brix-Hansen, co-president of homeware company Brix Design, has had his orders slashed, two of his biggest customers file for bankruptcy, and those who remain in business unable to pay for existing orders.

The company, which makes goods ranging from jar openers to lunchboxes, sells its products globally and has suffered the universal effects of coronavirus.

Joachim Brix-Hansen says Danish businesses have been hit hard by the lockdown. Lasse Lundberg Andreasen for The National
Joachim Brix-Hansen says Danish businesses have been hit hard by the lockdown. Lasse Lundberg Andreasen for The National

Turnover is down by more than half. The workforce has been split in two, working every other day at the company’s headquarters in Stege on the island of Mon, an hour’s drive from Copenhagen.

“Most people seem to support what the government is doing,” said Mr Brix-Hansen, who runs the business with his brother Christian.

“But if you own a company, you are suffering big time.

The Danish government has said that its shutdown is working.

The mortality rate in Denmark, which has one of the world’s best healthcare systems, has been at 3.9 per cent, compared with 12.3 per cent in Italy and 10.2 per cent in the UK.

Officials now plan to partly open schools and kindergartens after the Easter break.

But the borders will remain closed, large gatherings banned and restaurants, bars and cafes closed.

Despite the restrictions, almost 80 per cent of Danes have backed the government's handling of the crisis.

Its economic council predicted a contraction in GDP of only 3.5 per cent if output returns to normal quickly.

“I certainly hope they will start to open businesses and shopping centres," Mr Brix-Hansen said.

“People have seemed to act in a good way, washing their hands and keeping their distances, and coughing into their arms."

Sweden

People walk in Stockholm amid the coronavirus outbreak. Reuters
People walk in Stockholm amid the coronavirus outbreak. Reuters

Europe's worst outbreak at the outset of the crisis was in Italy, where to date more than 17,000 people have died.

The effect of Italy's shutdown has been felt far and wide around the continent.

Italian goods importer Pernilla Nilheim, 51, in Stockholm, is a mother of two teenage children.

Ms Nilheim described how her business "brutally stopped" overnight.

“In a day, it just died," she said. "I think it was when we realised that what happened in Italy has got to us in Sweden as well.

"Working so close to Italians, it really got to me. I realised Swedes stopped joking about it, they stopped saying it was exaggerated."

Ms Nilheim has since found new work supporting vulnerable people who need medication.

“Now I have switched paths, you could say, because I feel with the situation one has to think really quickly and adjust to survive economically,” she said. “We all have to go on.”

Ms Nilheim's boss at the pharmaceutical supplier, where she now works, has assured her it “will not lock down, it will not close. As long as the hospitals are open, this place will be open".

Updated: April 10, 2020 12:46 PM

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