On Tuesday, January 12, 2021, a health care worker will take care of a Covid 19 patient in the intensive care unit of the Robert Bosch Hospital in Stuttgart. Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany would face tough lockdown measures until the end of March if the authorities do not contain a rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus.
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It's been a year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, and as the UK and US progress with their vaccination rollouts, the EU is still in the depths of crisis.
The block is currently in a lethargic vaccination program and there are fears of another wave of infections from Paris to Prague.
On the first anniversary of the public health crisis, Europe doesn't have much time to ponder the losses of the past year – when over 547,000 people in the region died from the virus and thousands lost their livelihoods.
There are more and more cases in parts of the bloc, mainly caused by the spread of more infectious virus variants, from western EU country France to Central Europe to Hungary in the east.
France reported 30,303 new coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours on Wednesday, with the number of new cases rising above 30,000 for the first time in two weeks. Health experts say the hospital system in the greater Paris area is on the verge of rupture, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland have seen large increases in cases, which has led Eastern European governments to increase vaccination rates. So much so that several countries have resorted to a break with the EU with the approval of the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V, which has not yet been approved by the EU Medicines Agency.
Bulgaria and Serbia, as well as Sweden and Italy, are also among the countries where there has been an increase in cases.
The coronavirus, which first appeared in Wuhan in December 2019, was declared a pandemic a year ago, on March 11, 2020.
At this point it had already formed in northern Italy, which became the epicenter of Europe's first eruption. The timing of the spread coincided with the peak of the ski season, allowing the virus to spread to the UK, France and Germany.
The EU's Covid experience
National responses to the pandemic have varied, but the EU tried to coordinate its response, closing external borders for all but non-essential travel, and coordinating purchases of personal protective equipment and medical supplies such as ventilators.
However, the state and structure of health services in different parts of the EU, as well as the tracking and tracing systems in place, played a role in determining the spread and damage caused by the virus.
Germany, for example, has been praised for its initial response to the virus, in which the infected and their contacts were tracked down and isolated. Modern hospital infrastructure has also helped limit the number of deaths compared to other countries. So far Germany (with around 83 million inhabitants) has reported 2.5 million cases and 72,858 deaths compared to Italy (a country of 60.3 million people), 3.1 million cases and 100,811 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
In total, according to the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the EU and in the entire European Economic Area (essentially in the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), over 22.5 million cases have been reported so far.
The extent to which countries blocked their economies and public life during the pandemic also had an impact on infection rates.
Most of the countries in the EU chose to close all shops but the main ones, to close gyms, restaurants, theaters and bars, and to close the region's cultural and social life and economy. Although some, like Sweden, were notable for their decision not to lock, they sparked controversy and criticism from other EU countries, especially their neighbors.
However, it has gradually moved away from that position, especially in the face of a third wave of infections, and stricter restrictions on shops, gyms, swimming pools and sports facilities went into effect on March 6.
Economies across the bloc are hoping to open up as soon as possible, but the emergence of new, more virulent strains of the virus has ruined Christmas, ski season, and hopes that life could return to normal by Easter.
At the same time, the vaccination rollout across the block remains painfully slow compared to the UK and US.
The latest data from France shows that 4.1 million people received their first coronavirus vaccine on March 9th. In contrast, the UK had given over 22.8 million first doses at the same time.
The UK ordered, approved and administered vaccines faster than the EU, which placed orders in blocks rather than following individual guidelines. This was seen as an obstacle to the dynamics of the rollout.
The economic damage from the pandemic cannot be counted yet, but repeated lockdowns over the past year have taken their toll. A feared new wave could also delay a long-awaited reopening.
Data shows the damage the pandemic has already done to the region's economy and citizens. Preliminary data from Eurostat, the EU's data agency published in February, assume that GDP (gross domestic product) fell by 6.8% in 2020 in the euro area and by 6.4% in the EU.
Eurostat estimates that 15.6 million men and women were unemployed in the EU in January 2021. Compared to January 2020, unemployment increased by 1.465 million in the EU and 1.010 million in the euro area.