Covid-19: how will Europe get back up?

By Hannah Bieber

Disclaimer: this article was written on March 18th, 2020. Due to the instability of the situation, some of the information it contains might be subject to changes.

A lot of people were expecting it, and it finally happened: the world we live in has been challenged. Not the way we imagined it, not in the circumstances we expected, but it did. Europe is now facing one of its major crises since the day the European Union was created. And all the flaws that we knew that existed blew up in our faces. The demography of an old continent getting older and older, the weariness of our welfare states system, the instability of our financial organizations, the limits of a space without borders and the emergence of nationalism have now all been crystalized by a microscopic organism.

The recent Covid-19 outbreak and confinement measures will give us plenty of time to reflect on the consequences it will have on our societies, especially in Europe. Indeed, this virus is almost harmless for the majority of the population, but can be very harmful for the elderly, for instance. In 2016, one EU citizen out of five was over the age of 65. This is why the virus poses Europe an immense challenge today. But what about tomorrow? What will be the consequences of this crisis for the EU?

First of all, in my point of view, the way the virus spread will inevitably lead to the questioning of border control and the Schengen Area. While the free circulation of people is protected by the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), this crisis has led some member states to close their borders unilaterally. Moreover, on March 16th, the EU decided to close its external borders in order to prevent infected third country nationals from entering the old continent. When the crisis is over, populist parties will probably push even harder to reestablish border control or exit the Schengen Area. One can easily imagine far-right parties using this new fear of epidemics in order to convince people that this is now a necessity.

Besides, the financial system of the EU will have to be rethought. The instability of our capitalist economy has been brought to light in the harshest of ways. When the crisis hit China, the stock markets started panicking, but when it reached Europe, they went down. The financial crisis intertwined with a very complicated economic situation. In many European countries like Italy, Spain, France or Poland, stores and shops that are not considered necessary were closed in order to keep people home. Thus, the State has been responsible for helping the firms and workers who were asked to cease their activities. To cover the losses and ensure the safety of their people, the states will have to implement new economic strategies during and after this period. For instance, Peter Altmaier, the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, mentioned the possibility of temporarily nationalizing some firms. After the outbreak, the EU will have to rethink its financial and economic rules and objectives because we will probably face a period of recession.

This goes hand in hand with the reorganization of our health systems. What this crisis revealed, above all else, is the fact that we cannot keep cutting corners into our health budgets. Scientists and activists had been warning that such outbreaks would happen in the coming years due to climate change. This crisis interrogates the model of welfare states that still want to remain competitive in a globalized economy – because they do not really have a choice. Ensuring people’s health and making sure that there are enough doctors, nurses and that the facilities are well equipped is a vital element that many states seem to have been forgetting.

In France, for example, although no one could have predicted the outbreak, hospitals had been on strike and protesting for months, asking for more beds to be available, for more staff, and for the improvement of their facilities and working conditions, but had barely been heard by the government. And France will probably take a heavy toll because this call for help was taken too lightly. This crisis has shown that our states must not treat the health sector like any other economic activity and ask hospitals to be more efficient with less tools and staff.

The Covid-19 will also raise questions about the future of our democracies. After the start of the outbreak, some have applauded the way China handled the crisis. Indeed, it succeeded in controlling the problem, and the country slowly comes back to life, after two months of quarantine. But this situation was also handled thanks to Xi Jinping’s iron fist and the surveillance means available in Beijing. In a democracy, it is harder to control people. As a proof: EU citizens did not stop living because of the virus. They kept on going out and acted carelessly – sometimes recklessly. By making the choice of democracy, Europe also gave its citizens the right to do what they wanted. And in this case, in some countries, a lot of people decided to care more about themselves than their community.

This pushed some EU governments to close most venues where people gather and interact, because EU citizens failed to implement the social distancing preconized by scientists. In Italy, Spain and France, the State had to impose harsh confinement measures, which violate fundamental individual liberties, such as the right to gather or the right to move freely. But these measures were taken after people did not change their behavior to contain the virus. This raises an interesting philosophical debate over people’s liberty. Where does our liberty start and where does it have to stop? Did we reach a point where people have too much liberty? This is something that we will need to reflect about.

This also boils down to the question of social media, and media in general. The fact that we are constantly exposed to a somewhat overwhelming flow of information has worsened our feeling of being powerless and anxiety. It has also contributed to the misinformation of people, and ultimately could explain why they behaved in a careless way, sometimes. When the outbreak started in China, the Covid-19 was a ‘mystery pneumonia’. Then, the media depicted it as a bad flu, which could cause complications for most vulnerable people. The French government’s spokeswoman herself assured on live public radio that it was not a lot more dangerous than the flu itself. In this context, one may understand why Europeans did not take the illness seriously. How could they?

This situation even led the European Commission chief to acknowledge that EU leaders ‘underestimated’ the virus. On top of all the contradictory information came the infamous fake news that helped to create an atmosphere of defiance towards authorities at some occasions, with conspiracy theories, or fear at others. Despite their pledge to tackle misinformation, the social media – or people in general – have utterly failed to do so. Could the EU do more to help to control this kind of content in the future? On the other hand, more control over social media content could also lead to abuses from some governments. How will the EU tackle the issue of fake news all the while preserving people’s freedom of speech in the future?

Last but not least, this crisis will try the EU’s unity. All the elements cited above could compromise the future of the Union. Besides, this crisis revealed that, while nations came together – as we saw with the balcony gatherings to applaud hospital staff in Spain, for instance – to face the crisis, they acted as individual states. Few decisions have been taken at the EU level to handle the outbreak and some people have wondered ‘where is the EU, now?’ The crisis is not over yet, and the union will maybe react, but this critical moment has shown that nationalism prevailed over it in such a situation. Even if people have shown their support to their EU citizens counterparts – and this has been all the more true in the context of the Euroculture Master – they seem to care about themselves first, their country second and sometimes their fellow EU citizens third. However, now that ‘Europe has become the new epicenter of the pandemic’, it will maybe come together to face this new challenge. Only the future will tell if it will emerge stronger or more divided than ever from this crisis.

All in one, the Covid-19 outbreak will leave the EU with a lot of challenges, on top of the ones that it was facing before the illness reached our shores. But Europe will get back up. It has been through worse and has still managed to rise from its ashes. Some argue that this crisis will start the beginning of its end. But what if it marks a new beginning? This is the opportunity for the EU to show that solidarity and mutual care are at the core of its existence, rather than financial or economic concerns. Let’s hope that it will learn from its mistakes and grow stronger, so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Picture: Sean MacEntee, Flickr

Communicating solidarity in trying times: La radio per l’Italia

By Arianna Rizzi

« Are you ready? We are going to live an unprecedented moment of union. For the first time in Italy’s history, all the radios unite in an extraordinary moment of sharing and participation to celebrate our great country – Italy – with music … »

On 31 December 2019, the first Chinese cases of a novel virus were notified to the World Health Organisation (WHO). At that time, what we now call “coronavirus” had a different name – “2019-nCoV” – and seemed to concern only an area remote in space and time from the Western world. But it was not long before COVID-19 had its outbreak in Europe, and Italy was among the first countries to be hit by the epidemic – now declared a pandemic – in the European region.

We all know by now how things have escalated in China – which, as of 20 March, has registered none new locally transmitted cases for a second day – as well as the dramatic pace at which they still are escalating in Italy, France, Germany – and globally. As the states implement more and more stringent measures to slow down the contagion and avoid the collapse of the different national healthcare systems, we find ourselves mostly confined in our homes: in fact, while a vaccine for COVID-19 is being developed, we have to act like a social vaccine and practice physical social distancing in order to not get infected ourselves and not infect other people.

In Italy, the government led by PM Giuseppe Conte decided for a first, selective lockdown on 22 February, when eleven municipalities in the north of the country were declared “red zones”. The measures were soon extended to entire regions (Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont) and finally, on 9 March, to the whole country. This concretely means that in Italy, several citizens have been in quarantine for almost a month.

In these trying times, many are the initiatives through which Italians have tried and reinvented togetherness, in order to cope with the disruption of our daily routines and social life – from “balcony flash mobs” to live Instagram “concerts from home” and free access to a variety of digital services and products (streaming platforms, ebooks, etc.). It is in this spontaneous framework of grassroots and top-down solidarities that La radio per l’Italia places itself, also as an unprecedented event in the (Italian) history of communication.

Through the brainchild of Radio Italia’s vice-president Marco Pontini, La radio per l’Italia brought simultaneous radio broadcasting to life for the first time in Italian history. On 20 March, at 11 a.m., all the Italian radio stations – both public and private broadcasters, both national and local stations, all at the same time – joined forces and played the same four songs: Inno di Mameli – the Italian national anthem – Azzurro by Celentano, La Canzone del Sole by Battisti and Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare) by Modugno.

But let’s take a step back to better grasp the sociological relevance of such an event. As humans, we are currently seeing our primary form of sociality – face-to-face interaction – cut down to the bone, because it itself represents a danger to the survival of our societies. Media, as (alternative) means of communication, become then even more prominent: provided that, already in normal circumstances, they allow us to stay informed, keep in touch with our loved ones and stay connected to our local and national community wherever we are, we see how their role becomes vital in a time when even a simple encounter with a friend represents too much of a social risk.

In this historical and historic moment in which media are almost all we have left to maintain our sociality, what does it mean to broadcast the same message, at the same time, on all the available (radio) channels? Most likely, it means trying and uniting a nation by means of what John B. Thompson called “despatialised simultaneity”: mass media – and especially radio, TV and Internet broadcasting – allow people to experience an event as simultaneous, regardless of where they are and where the event is taking place. For instance, when we switch on the television and tune in to a certain channel to follow the news, we understand that many other people might be doing the same. Some of us will in fact be seeing the same images, listening to the same updates, at the same time – but each in their own home. This mechanism becomes yet more evident in the occasion of big happenings: a presidential discourse, the Olympics, a royal wedding.

In the case of La radio per l’Italia, despatialised simultaneity was pushed to its extreme: not one, not many, but all the Italian radio stations jointly decided to offer the same 10 minutes of music, and by doing so they merged their particular audiences into one – that of the Italian people. Anyone – from Milan to Campobasso, from Udine to Messina – turning on the radio around 11 would in fact be listening to the same four songs. A powerful initiative, considering the cultural and patriotic value of the songs chosen. A brief, yet nationwide “event” – of which the effective audience still has to be determined – that proves that mass communication can also serve as a privileged bearer of solidarity messages.

Picture: Pietro Luca Cassarino, Flickr