Me or us - how is the virus changing society?

The Covid-19 pandemic is putting a major strain on Europe's healthcare systems and economies: hospitals are having to turn away patients, schools and cultural institutions are being closed and entire business sectors are crippled, posing a challenge for the population as a whole. Commentators examine how the virus is changing how politicians, entrepreneurs and citizens think and act.

Open/close all quotes
Avvenire (IT) /

Keeping a distance but all together

Millions of Italians are having to stay at home because of coronavirus, but they make music together on the balconies and applaud the doctors. Avvenire commends what it sees as healthy patriotism:

“We respect the rules that apply for the health of each individual, we keep our distance from each other when we stand in queues outside the supermarket, not because otherwise we'd face a fine, but because we know this is the only weapon we have to win. We are citizens, not subjects. What pride is behind the applause for doctors and nurses, for the police. ... They are our champions today, our national team. How wonderful it is to see so many Italians singing the national anthem, 'Nel blu dipinto di blu', 'Azzurro' or 'Viva l'Italia' from balcony to balcony.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

The comeback of the state

The pandemic has corrected the balance of power between politics and business, columnist Bert Wagendorp notes with satisfaction in De Volkskrant:

“The state is back. As the guardian of the people and the public interest, as the saviour of the country and as a generous donor to businesses. ... [The credit crisis of 2008] did not lead to a significant change in the neoliberal economic paradigm, the sacred faith in the market, or the salutary effect of individualism and self-interest. The free market works well as long as money can be made, but in crises it is far away. Then it's up to governments to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. ... But now, hopefully, the coronavirus will deal this principle the final death blow.”

Le Point (FR) /

Macron suddenly swerving to the left

The unconditional state support for the healthcare system and the economy which France's president announced on television on Thursday represents a striking break with his previous policies, Le Point argues:

“Covid-19 has just claimed another victim in the person of the socially liberal globalisation advocate Emmanuel Macron, who now advocates strengthening the welfare state, questions the market economy, touts the benefits of protectionism, and no longer even hestitates to attack the ECB's policies, which he considers extremely inadequate. Listening to the head of state on Thursday night, one wonders whether the Socialist Party hasn't finally found its candidate for the next presidential election.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

A test for the West's value system

Ethics professor Martin Booms reflects in the NZZ on the consequences of the crisis for an already unsettled Western-liberal society:

“The coronavirus crisis will only be overcome when people see eye to eye in value terms and agree that their own interests are best advanced when they are oriented towards the common good. ... If we fail to meet this challenge there is a danger that in no time at all the virus could undermine liberal Western structures and the liberal Western worldview to the point of collapse. ... If we can once again focus on the foundations of Western-liberal understanding, this biological setback will ultimately be an opportunity for society.”

Upsala Nya Tidning (SE) /

Everyone on their guard against everyone else

Upsala Nya Tidning fears that the crisis will open the door to sheer selfishness:

“The psychological effects of a pandemic have been described many times in film and literature. Sales of Albert Camus's classic 'The Plague' have boomed in recent weeks. When a contagious disease breaks out on a large scale, a gradual loss of trust in others can be the result. Rich people barricade themselves in their fortress, the moderately well-off instinctively get the urge to lock themselves in their summer house. All the rest sneak back and forth between home and the grocery store and watch each other: is that person infected, or is there something wrong with them? Then there's the dawning awareness of the finite nature of resources when society closes down. ... Only five cans of ravioli in the shop? I'll take all five, and the neighbour who comes after me can go home empty-handed.”

La Repubblica (IT) /

Cruel selection

In Italian hospitals the supplies situation is already critical. Commenting in La Repubblica, columnist Ezio Mauro complains that elderly people are basically at the mercy of the virus:

“One step further and we arrive at that process of 'selection' between patients who can be saved and those who are beyond help. ... Doctors are faced with such decisions every day, assessing the patient's condition and the continuation of therapy. But the generational selection that is taking place here without the country stopping and trying to understand the conflict between fathers and sons is an entirely different matter; between the absolute value of a life and the scale of values of a virus that turns old age into a debt or a burden. ... While it affects the individual, the virus is also attacking society and weakening its cohesion.”

Dnevnik (BG) /

Coronavirus fears could change humanity

Dnevnik sees the coronavirus pandemic, which happens to coincide with the Orthodox fasting period, as having a cathartic effect:

“The Orthodox Great Lent [2 March - 18 April] will pose a very special challenge this year - both for the faithful and for the non-believers among us. The fear of death has gone from being an individual problem to a collective one. It is a common threat that demands more from us than a physical 40-day quarantine. The question is not just what will happen to all of us and the world in the next 40 days. Just as important is how this time of suffering will change us. What kind of people will emerge from behind the masks of fear?”

Die Presse (AT) /

Don't leave parents in the lurch

After closing all its schools Austria is leaving parents to deal with childcare on their own, Die Presse writes:

“The government took a drastic step on Wednesday with the temporary closure of all schools. However, if you look at the latest reports coming from Italy, this is absolutely the right step. ... But what is not right is when the responsibility for whether a child stays at home or is taken care of elsewhere is left to parents alone. ... Parents should show 'solidarity' with the older generation, says Education Minister Heinz Faßmann. It would be nice if the government also showed solidarity with parents and their employers and passed precise rules on when employees can stay at home and who bears the costs.”

Handelsblatt (DE) /

Suspend tariffs and import quotas!

More solidarity would also be good for business right now, writes Handelsblatt:

“The US and China could suspend their punitive tariffs in their mutual interest. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could drop his threat to sever economic ties with the EU at the end of the year if no free trade agreement has been negotiated by then. And all WTO members should commit to suspending all import duties, import quotas and export bans on medical devices, disinfectants and soaps for the next six months. Such a sign of international solidarity would not only reassure the financial markets but would also increase the scope for targeted tax cuts, state aid for ailing companies and greater public investment.” (RO) /

Quarantines? Who cares?

In the past two weeks thousands of Romanians have travelled from Italy to their homeland. Commenting in blog journalist Florin Negruțiu says too many people are underestimating the threat posed by the coronavirus:

“We think it won't affect us. And we won't let the authorities tell us what to do. We go straight to the front of the queue, ignore the red light at intersections, solve problems with a bribe. When they put Italy into shutdown we head home to bypass the quarantine and throw a homecoming party for everyone. When they close the schools we find an after-school programme to put the kids in. ... Even when it's our health that's at stake, our children's or our parents', we don't really care that much. ... As long as I'm okay the rest can snuff it - look around, you'll find countless compatriots who think like that.”

Večernji list (HR) /

Low-risk group haughtiness is unacceptable

Even those who are not in the high-risk age group should not take the virus lightly, Večernji list warns:

“It's wrong to always emphasise that coronavirus is most threatening to those over 80 years old, then those over 70, 60, etc. Are you saying that it's less important if they succumb to the disease? That's not the case. We know many people over 60 whose individual contribution to society is greater than that of 20 young people put together. Even elderly citizens who can't contribute much to society due to illness are irreplaceable for someone. This is not the time for the healthy and insensitive to brag about their so-called courage - because not succumbing to panic doesn't give you the right to be irresponsible towards others.”

Dnevnik (SI) /

Healthcare austerity taking its toll

Dnevnik is concerned about Slovenia's border with Italy and warns that Slovenian hospitals and medical practices could soon be stretched beyond their limits:

“The factor that paralyses the health system and results in more fatalities is the sudden rapid increase in the number of patients, in particular elderly people in need of intensive care. The biggest problem Italy now faces is the collapse of its healthcare system, a problem that even rehiring retired staff can't remedy. Italy has years of cutbacks in the public healthcare system behind it, and private clinics often even close their doors during epidemics. And the same thing could happen here: the long-overloaded healthcare system, the severe shortage of doctors and the shameful state of our healthcare infrastructure could really take their toll now.”

Dagens Nyheter (SE) /

Boost domestic production of medications

Dagens Nyheter criticises the public institutions' strategy of awarding contracts for vital products to cheap suppliers abroad:

“How smart can it be to have almost all the drugs whose patents have expired manufactured in a few giant factories in Asia? How clever is it not to produce or store medical supplies in your home country? In times of crisis, the strength or weakness of a society become clear. Smart citizens insure themselves and their property - society should do the same. But of course that costs money. ... More suppliers located closer to home may be more expensive. But having to wait a quarter of a year for medicine from China also incurs costs - above all in the form of fear and suffering. A welfare state should not expose its citizens to such ills.”

Atlantico (FR) /

Dangerous for those with other illnesses too

Covid-19 could also prove fatal for people who haven't been infected with the virus, warns Stéphane Gayet, a specialist in internal medicine and infectious diseases, in an interview with Atlantico:

“Non-urgent surgical interventions (so-called planned procedures) can of course be postponed without major difficulties. But beds for cardiology patients, cancer therapy and chronic care are also likely to be requisitioned. ... The chances of a significant number of patients suffering from diseases other than Covid-19 will inevitably be reduced. .... For many progressive illnesses, delaying treatment reduces the chances of survival. Prioritisation is becoming a sensitive issue. And our hospital system is being further weakened by the crisis.”

Õhtuleht (EE) /

State must not rely on voluntary action

In Estonia only one school is currently under quarantine because a pupil fell ill after a holiday in Italy. Õhtuleht sees the state's actions as inconsistent:

“Many people ask what good this quarantine can do if the pupils stay at home but the other members of their Family continue to go to work, school or kindergarten. It's easy to say that those who have come into contact with the virus, even indirectly, should do more on their own initiative than the government recommendations. Apart from the fear of the virus, however, there is little motivation to do so if the first three days of illness and voluntarily cancelled trips are not remunerated. The situation would be different if the government were to take decisive action, including giving healthy people sick leave and stopping air travel to risk areas.”

Irish Independent (IE) /

Boost consumption with higher sick pay

Increased financial support for coronavirus victims is also in the interest of the economy, The Irish Independent points out:

“The value of a European-style social welfare system is never more evident than in times of uncertainty and shock. Illness benefit is among the oldest types of welfare payment. It is vital in helping people at what is often their lowest ebb. It has not, however, usually been a means of boosting demand in any economy. ... What the world is facing with coronavirus has already moved into unprecedented territory. There is a case not only for easing access to illness benefit, but for increasing payments too, as a means of lessening a potential severe reduction in consumer spending in the economy.”