Coronavirus: Europeans crave normality but remain patient | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 03.04.2020
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Coronavirus: Europeans crave normality but remain patient

Schools, restaurants, offices and shops are closed. Public life has come to a halt in Europe. How long can these measures last? More and more voices are calling for an exit strategy.

How long will people put up with restrictions to their freedom of movement? What is going on under the surface of society? Bundestag member Marco Buschmann, from the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), has said that he fears people, especially from the middle classes, might start rebelling if they are worried about losing their jobs or seeing their savings lose value.

He told DW that the restrictions on freedom were "justified at the moment" but that it was important to "work speedily to find ways of easing and eventually lifting the lockdown in a way that is medically responsible too." For him, the crucial question is: "How much risk is justifiable to return to a semblance of normality?"

Others have been more concrete with regard to when the restrictions should be lifted even if they do not necessarily share Buschmann's alarm. Carsten Linnemann, a lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party, said that the economy would be gradually powered up after Easter. He said that it was impossible to maintain a situation like now for more than two or three months.

Read more: As the coronavirus triggers a global economic crisis, just how bad could it get?

From a medical point of view, virologist Alexander Kekulé thinks that it might well be possible to ease the lockdown after the Easter holidays. However, one of the the chairs of the World Medical Association, Germany's Frank Ulrich Montgomery, says that the earliest possible moment for doing this will be early May.

German population patient

The government refuses to speculate. "We're at the beginning of the pandemic and should not lift the measures too early," said Interior Minister Horst Seehofer at the beginning of the week.

The government has said that it will start thinking about easing the restrictions only when the rate of infections in Germany is doubling every 10 days. Right now it's about every five days.

Most of the German population does not seem to be desperate for the restrictions to be lifted. According to a Forsa poll, 88% of respondents approved three more weeks of restrictions. Half were even in favor of stricter restrictions. The poll did not ask whether people would agree to a considerably longer lockdown.

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Stricter measures in Italy, Spain, Austria

In Italy, the European country that has been most affected by COVID-19 so far, the curve does seem to be flattening and there has been a decrease in new infections. Yet, few are asking for the draconian restrictions to be lifted too soon. Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said earlier this week: "We must not confuse the first positive signals with an 'all clear' signal'."

In Spain, which after Italy has the most infections in Europe, the restrictions have been tightened. Only people who work in "essential sectors" are now allowed to leave the house. Antonio Garamendi, chairman of the Spanish Business Associations Confederation, complained earlier this week that the new measures could trigger mass unemployment. "The government didn't even ask us for advice," he said, warning that there might not only be an "economic crisis but also a social one."

There will be no imminent return to normality in Austria either where people must now wear protective masks to go to the supermarket. An article in the Viennese newspaper Die Presse predicted that this "new normality" could last about a year. "Of course during this period, the country will not be able to operate in the emergency situation that it currently finds itself in."

Sweden: Business as usual, almost

Two countries initially decided at the start of the crisis to follow a different path. Both the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his British counterpart Boris Johnson opted for a policy of "herd immunity." Instead of putting the entire population into lockdown the idea was to isolate high-risk groups, including the elderly and people with weak immune systems, and hope that a majority of the population would be infected and become immune. Schools initially remained open.

After a massive outcry and accusations that the governments did not care about the victims, the talk of "herd immunity" was dropped and restrictive measures were introduced. Right now, few people are calling for them to be lifted.

The one country in Europe which does seem to be an exception Sweden, where there is relative normality. Restaurants remain open, as do many schools. Though the government has imposed a ban on visiting senior homes, it is relying on the population's reasonable behavior regarding social distancing and self-isolation. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has told his fellow citizens in his address: "We all, as individuals, have to take responsibility. We can't legislate and ban everything."

A question of trust

In Germany, even the loudest critics of the restrictions are reluctant to call for a set date for when the country should return to normality; they want this to be linked to medical progress regarding the virus. However, they do want the government to present an exit strategy.

The CSU finance expert and lawmaker, Hans Michelbach, has pointed out that both citizens and the business world need "clear prospects" and that it is important to develop a "procedure for rebooting economic life in a structured way." 

Read more: Coronavirus and mental health: 'We are not made for social isolation'

Economic expert Volker Wieland has advised the government to be straightforward with the public and to tell it that "on the basis of certain criteria, we can see the situation moving forward thus…" He thinks that this would help create trust and stabilize the economic situation. Marco Buschmann from the FDP has also called on the government to communicate its political considerations in a transparent way. "If certain aspects are taboo, long-term damage will be done to the trust in the state and politics."

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