The coronavirus has the world in its clutch. Not only does it have its own name (SARS CoV2), and its own disease (Covid-19) but more importantly it has been coined as a Pandemic by the World Health Organisation. The health emergency of the disease has thus been lifted to the highest level.
The impact of this virus on the way we live, work, learn, travel and interact with each other is as of yet unknown.
We nevertheless join forces as sisters to reach out and share our thoughts. We come from very different domains; one of us (Christine) works on EU governance at Maastricht University and lives in Brussels and the other (Stephanie) works in the health sector and as such in the ‘Covid 19 intensive care unit’ of a Viennese hospital, where she is very busy with the ever rising influx of Covid patients and the phone ringing constantly.
It thus comes as no surprise that our reflections span from the realm of (EU) governance to health. We do so in ‘six acts’:
1. Staying in, leads to reaching out: To make sure that employees are protected from the outbreak, companies world-wide have called on their employees to work from home. Schools and Universities - and the UM is no exception - have virtually closed their doors to make sure that the virus does not spread too quickly. Many thus have to work and learn from home. Staying in, however, does not imply that one does not reach out. We resort to video and web conferencing. We are putting our courses online and resort to tools that allow us to virtually ‘meet’ our students. Lectures are recorded. Job talks are held by way of ‘zoom’-ing in, also at UM, which is a first (at least for Christine). Unsurprisingly, all this activity puts an unprecedented strain on the internet. As we well know, the internet is, however, not only used for work but also for leisure. It is noteworthy that the European Commission has stepped in here. It has called on streaming providers to reduce the streaming quality in Europe, which they will do so for (at least) a month. Although the untrained eye can not tell the difference, one could use this a signal to turn to some nice novels instead….
2. ‘Fortress Europe’ becomes fortified further: All EU Member States that are part of the Schengen area have adopted an unanimous approach on what to do with their external borders in face of the virus. They have approved guidelines, which foresee that the EU external borders are to be closed, for at least a period of 30 days. This goes hand in hand increasing border controls between EU Member States. Although one can - as UM staff have duly been informed - in exceptional cases travel from Brussels to Maastricht for work, Stephanie said to her sister: ‘You are not going to take any (health)risks just for a University job.’ Now Christine knows what her medical doctor sister thinks of her work…
3. Complementary EU action and ‘nationalisation’ of approaches: Possibly counter-intuitively, this closing of the EU external borders does not go hand in hand with a unified approach in the EU when it comes to how to deal with the virus. This goes back to the EU Treaties which state that public health is a ‘shared’ competence. While it is up to EU Member States to define and deliver their national health services, the EU complements national policies by its Health Strategy, by for example engaging in health promotion activities. We see this in action during this health crisis. The Commission has shared ‘simple precautions’ to stop the virus from spreading, which reach from how to wash one’s hands to determining the distance one has to stay away from other people. And in order to deal with ‘cabin fever’ the Commission suggests to do yoga and play a board game. Christine took the latter to heart and played one with her family. It took her two rounds to grasp the rules but then she won, so now her girls have to play every day... This is of course in sharp contrast with people working in the medical profession who will probably not learn a new language, or organize their closet this year. Christine’s family also leaves the house once in a while. Parks are still open in Brussels (unlike in Vienna) but one can not sit on benches, nor play ball. The police surveys queues of people in front of the butcher (with the best merguez in town) to make sure the virus does not spread.
On Member State level, we see different approaches on how to deal with this Pandemic. Some Member States such as Austria, France, Belgium have – albeit at different speeds – reacted with what is coined as a ‘lock-down’. Other Member States at least initially reacted with trying to build up population- or ‘herd immunity’. This immediately brings us to the health dimension of this contribution.
4. ‘Herd immunity’ is exported to new pastures: While this term is a well known term linked to certain vaccinations, it was at least at the beginning of the crisis, used by heads of government to build up ‘group immunity’ by allowing the disease to run rampant through a population. As a consequence of herd immunity, the (projected) herd effect is the decrease in infection rate in the part of the community that is not immune to the virus. This effect of the current virus is however not yet scientifically well established, which leads us to the next issue.
5. Great uncertainty due to unknown development of virus: This can reach from (a very unlikely!) unexpected extinction (SARS-1 became extinct due to loss of a gene after a series of mutations, among other factors), to coming back in the winter season. This is the favourite season every coronavirus (yes, we are dealing with harmless strains of corona viruses every winter, on top of influenza), leading to renewed lock-downs. The search for a vaccine which could help us fight this disease is of course on-going, but even the most optimistic among us assume that it will take at least a year until this could become widely available. But, as Stephanie notes, do not confuse your personal risk with the risk to society. As you are reading this you are probably young and healthy. There is a good chance that you will become infected at some time during this pandemic, but do not be scared. The overwhelming majority of cases are asymptomatic or has mild symptoms, especially in younger people. What we are afraid of as a society is that too many people get sick at the same time and that hospitals are overwhelmed taking care of them. In any case the following is key also in this debate on the development of the virus.
6. Reliable expertise is more important than ever: According to Stephanie, policy makers and medical professionals alike are flooded with information with varying levels of evidence. She compares this to ‘drinking from a fire hydrant’. Thus, beware of fake corona news, as the blog by UM President Prof. Martin Paul stresses. And remember: a pandemic is like a natural disaster. It is no one’s fault…
So where do we go from here? As is evident to all of us, the virus already had a severe impact on our lives, even if to differing degrees.
But let us reach out and connect. Keep up the spirit!
Prof. Christine Neuhold, Maastricht University and dr. Stephanie Neuhold, Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Hospital, Vienna