How European countries have changed after a year of coronavirus crisis

How European countries have changed after a year of coronavirus crisis
Children hold a sign reading "I want to ski" at a December protest against the French government's decision to keep ski lifts closed. Photo: AFP
Sunday February 14th marks one year since the first coronavirus death in Europe. Life in the countries has changed dramatically as our journalists across nine countries report.

In some ways the pandemic has forced through much-needed change, but mostly it's just been a long, hard slog, with some the small pleasures of living in the different countries in The Local's network stripped away. Our reporters reflect on some of the biggest changes. 

Patients lie in bed at a temporary emergency structure set up outside the Brescia hospital in Lombardy on March 13, 2020. Photo: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Clare Speak, Italy

One year ago, most people in Italy were starting to wonder just how worried they should be about the new coronavirus. Less than two weeks later, Europe’s first major outbreak exploded in the north of the country.

Since then, the pandemic has changed life in Italy in countless ways, large and small. Big family lunches have become a thing of the past, as has the habit of hugging and kissing everyone you meet. At least we can now buy takeaway coffee everywhere in Italy for the first time. Previously seen as sacrilege, the concept has now been embraced as people had little other choice.

Another change is the fact that you no longer have to do absolutely everything in person. Some bureaucratic processes are (slowly) moving online, and more people are shifting away from cash payments. Online shopping, too, is catching on.

One of the biggest changes is the loss of mass tourism, which until last year accounted for some 13 percent of national GDP. Last February, the foreign minister was still begging tourists not to cancel trips to Italy. That message soon changed. Most travel now remains heavily restricted

Like everywhere else, the economy is struggling and unemployment has shot up. Government ministers have suggested that the billions of euros in EU recovery funds, arriving this year, should be used for major restructuring of the economy. There are hopes that Italy could rely less on tourism and more on its strong manufacturing sector, for example.

But the future is very uncertain. Right now, Italy has been without a fully-functioning government for almost a month. We may get a new one this weekend, but there’s no word on possible policies yet. Even during a pandemic, Italian politics remains as unpredictable as ever.

While face masks on public transport are now recommended in Sweden in rush hour, compliance is limited. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Emma Löfgren, Sweden

Around this time last year, Swedish health authorities still considered the risk to be “very low” that the coronavirus would spread within Sweden. Only one person had tested positive, and it was to take another month before the country’s first death.

Fast forward to now, and more than 600,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed, more than 12,000 people have died. And we’re told to brace for a third wave.

One of the recurring criticisms this year has been that Sweden was slow to react to new data about the virus, and favoured voluntary measures over binding lockdowns. It has recently cracked down harder than before, with binding restrictions on for example travel, and guidelines to wear face masks during rush hour on public transport (albeit so optional that even the head of the Public Health Agency himself admitted to having forgotten once to wear a mask on the bus).

Meanwhile, the debate has become more and more fractious. An online campaign group for critics of Sweden's coronavirus strategy has been accused of being “a threat to democracy” after public radio reported it was spreading hate and trying to influence foreign governments to tighten travel restrictions for Swedes. Senior officials have received death threats.

Readers of The Local have reported receiving xenophobic abuse after criticising the strategy, while others say they have been threatened for the act of wearing a face mask. Researchers have said they are no longer commenting on the coronavirus in the media due to harassment.

It’s clear Sweden will need a period of reflection and accountability to solve the problems that have been laid bare by the pandemic, for example inequalities when it comes to healthcare access, but if it continues like this it will be hard to find room for constructive discussion.

People wearing face masks at a Christmas market in Essen, Germany, back in October. Photo: Ina Fassbender / AFP

Rachel Loxton, Germany

In Germany we’ve been in a Covid-19 shutdown for more than four months now – and it’s just been extended until March 7th. Restaurants, bars and cafes shut (except for takeaway) at the start of November, along with cultural and leisure facilities. 

The rules were tightened in December with the closure of all non-essential shops and schools, plus stricter contact rules.

It’s hard to imagine this time a year ago. The first known coronavirus outbreak in Germany – detected in Bavaria – had been brought under control. But Covid was already spreading.

We went into our first lockdown in March – the seriousness of the situation only became clear when Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the nation, saying it was the biggest challenge since World War II. 

After this point everyone began following the rules. And it paid off. The numbers came down and we thought it was all over.

The world wanted to learn lessons from Germany. We were lauded for our quick action, test and trace and rigorous testing. 

Summer feels like it took place years ago on another planet. Although we wore masks (a rule brought in last April), we were able to sit with friends, eat food, drink and enjoy some kind of normality. 

Things quickly went downhill as cases began to shoot up. Merkel admitted this week that Germany dropped the ball. 

She said the government's approach at the end of summer was “too hesitant”, that Germany was “not careful enough and not fast enough”.

Although there are fears over coronavirus variants, there’s hope ahead.

States will reopen more of public life if numbers continue to come down. 

The number of cases per 100,000 residents in seven days stands at around 65. Months of restrictions have paid off. 

But people are weary. We go to the supermarket, we buy beer, we walk, we stay at home.

Life goes on in some ways – yet we’re stuck. We need things to get back to some kind of normality.

People just desperately hope that opening up doesn’t mean another wave and lockdown is on the cards.

A closed café in Montpellier in the south of France during the country's November lockdown. Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP 

Emma Pearson, France
 
Chatting in cafés over a bottle of wine, going to see a film, heading to the seaside to faire le pont and spend three days eating oysters and grilled langoustines . . . so many small pleasures of life in France have been unavailable over the last year.
 
But while this last year has undoubtedly been very tough it has also been interesting to see how France has handled it and how that compares to other countries.
 
Some things we could have predicted – the heavily centralised State response and the retreat into bureaucracy that had us all filling out forms to leave the home seemed very French. As, unfortunately, have some of the missteps and delays in the government response, such as the glacially slow pace of the vaccine rollout.
 
But some things have come as more of a surprise, particularly the fact that the French – internationally caricatured as being constantly either on strike or protesting – have lived for a year under some of the strictest rules in the world.
 
Clearly not everyone in France has obeyed the rules but the country has – so far – largely avoided mass anti-lockdown/curfew protests or even riots seen in countries including Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA.
 
While some countries have insisted on their 'freedom loving' status and seen terrible death tolls as a result, France has sacrificed its liberté and demonstrated instead fraternité. From State aid for those struggling to people staying indoors to protect the vulnerable and the health service, the crisis has brought out many of the very best aspects of France. 
 
As we look ahead to what will hopefully be the easing of the crisis and the reopening of the country, France faces what is perhaps a bigger challenge – the combination of a massive recession and a 2022 presidential election with an increasingly confident far-right movement. Let's hope the country can continue to show the best of itself.
 
A couple are served a bowl of fondue in a former ski gondola at Restaurant Marzilibruecke in Bern in November 16. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/AFP
 
Helena Bachmann, Switzerland

What has changed in Switzerland since the start of the pandemic? The answer is: everything.

Nothing about our lives is the way it used to be before the coronavirus struck. So many of us forgot what it’s like not to wear masks and carry a bottle of disinfectant wherever we go.

Those days seem like another lifetime.

With the exception of a couple months in the summer, when restrictions were temporarily lifted because it looked like we had Covid under control, the past year has been marked by incessant grimness. 

As soon as a flicker of hope emerges, it quickly disappears. For instance, the number of Covid infections, hospitalisations and deaths has been dropping, but the new variants of the virus are multiplying and are expected to become dominant very soon.

And so many people were hoping that the vaccines  would finally give us our ‘old’ lives back, including all the freedoms we used to take for granted. But now that the vaccines are here — even though they are in short supply — we are told they may not be effective against new virus mutations. There’s just no way to win this battle.

It seems like we take one step forward and three steps back.

While we surely know more about coronavirus now than we did a year ago, we still can’t find our way out of this predicament.

The shutdown measures currently in place — the closing of bars, restaurants, and all non-essential businesses, along with the five-person limit on gatherings — were supposed to be lifted on February 28th. But now authorities are saying this deadline may be extended.

Given this situation, an increasing number of people are relieving their sense of hopelessness and despair through drugs and alcohol, according to new research showing that the pandemic and addictions go hand in hand. 

Others express their frustration through acts of aggression. “Everything is closed. There is nothing we can do anymore, we feel locked up”, one participant in a brawl said on social media

Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to see any light at the end of this long tunnel. Only die-hard optimists can see a rosy future ahead.

 

Santa Claus greets children at Aalborg Zoo protected by a coronavirus safe plastic bubble. Photo: Henning Bagger / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP

Michael Barrett, Denmark

It’s just under a year since Denmark registered its first case of the coronavirus, in a man returning from a ski trip to northern Italy. The country responded relatively quickly, announcing a national lockdown on March 11th. The week leading up to that date had already seen various announcements – I recall the government advising the public to forego handshakes for now, and asking organisers of concerts to call them off.

That felt surreal and unprecedented at the time but it is now everyday life. There’s no schedule for a return to normality. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said this week that “full epidemic control” would be needed for that, even as younger school age groups were allowed to return in the only loosening of the current lockdown so far allowed.

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to walk around a supermarket without a face mask on, I’ve also forgotten the last time I visited parts of Copenhagen I frequented before the pandemic to meet friends, eat out or simply to go into the office.

Denmark was hit hard by the second wave of the virus over the winter and is now grappling with B117, but has avoided the very worst restrictions like stay-at-home orders and limits on going out for exercise. Even in temperatures well under zero, there’s life outside: runners, people walking with prams, passers-by with coffee and takeaway from nearby cafes. These are the small signs that normal life is still here under the surface of what feels like an interminable separation from crowds and company.

A shop in Madrid decked out with improvised protective plastic sheeting in March. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP
 
 
Fiona Govan, Spain

Spain has been one of the hardest-hit nations in Europe recording more than three million coronavirus cases and over 64,000 dead and that’s just the official count.  When the pandemic hit, Spain went into the strictest lockdown in Europe with people confined to their homes for over three months, not even allowed outside for exercise. 

From lockdown through de-escalation and back to an ongoing series of tightening and loosening of restrictions we’ve learnt that in fact Spaniards (young people and their botellons aside) are for the most part are pretty law abiding citizens, navigating a complicated raft of instructions that differ from region to region and sometimes even town to town and are subject to change every few days.

We’ve also learnt that despite outward displays of solidarity – seen during lockdown’s nightly applause for healthcare workers – Spanish society is quick to divide along partisan lines, with pot banging on the streets of Madrid’s upmarket Salamanca district against the leftist central government’s policies and demos in the working class districts opposed to restrictions imposed by right-wing regional authorities.

New words have been adopted into the lexicon; 'toque de queda' (curfew) 'confinamiento'  and that most controversial of terms that emerged at Christmas –‘allegados’– and habits have changed. Everyone is now used to wearing masks and an elbow bump has replaced the traditional greeting of a kiss on each cheek. No-one goes out for dinner at 9 in the evening. They can’t because the restaurants are closed. 

Above all Spain is facing an economic crisis that promises to be even more devastating than the last one with GDP contracting by 11 percent in 2020 and more than 600,000 job losses pushing the unemployment rate to above 16 percent. 

Tourism, an industry on which Spain is so reliant attracting more than 80 million annual visitors before the pandemic hit, is currently dead in the water but it will bounce back and so too will the fiestas, the late nights and Spanish highly social way of living. 

If we can all just hold on until then.

Norwegian children returning to school in April. Photo: AFP

Isabel Müller Eidhamar, Norway

It is almost one year since Norway closed its borders to the world in the light of the mysterious new virus outbreak known as Covid-19, one of the first in Europe to do so. It is fair to say that no one expected then the extents in which it would disrupt our lives, and as we enter our second pandemic Spring it is clear that most Norwegians are sick and tired of it all.

The biggest effect is arguably the shutting of the borders, and for a people who love to travel, ranking top of people with the most travel days in Europe in 2014, being unable to travel anywhere for over a year has had a big impact. Even day-trips to neighboring Sweden to shop cheap groceries have stopped, and Norwegians with family abroad have for the most part of a year been unable to see or visit them. When the Government implemented the controversial quarantine hotel in the autumn, Norwegians stuck abroad went into havoc.

Education, seminars, work and social life has been moved to the online sphere, where a night on the town with friends has been replaced with a Zoom quiz and laughter shared through a screen. Neither bad, just different.

Face masks have also become mandatory in many places, and every shop smells of antibac. Yet, perhaps Norwegians have come to enjoy the small things to a greater extent, and many more have discovered the magic of their home country as the summer encouraged local travel. Despite economic hardship, the sales of cabins have skyrocketed.

As Norway maneuvers its second wave and vaccinations have been halted, it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but like the Norwegian nights get longer and brighter so will life. It might just take a little longer than we all first anticipated.

A woman opens a shop in downtown Austria in February. Photo: Ronald Zak/AP/AFP

Emma Midgley, Austria

As early as January last year there was a change in Vienna. Suddenly it was possible to visit the spectacular Cafe Central without queuing or get reservations in a restaurant at short notice as the number of tourists visiting from China dwindled to nothing.

Austria imposed a strict lockdown in mid-March. One of the world's first coronavirus hotspots was the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl, which led to infections all over Europe as people returned home after holidays. 

Now for most of the year Austria’s top tourist attractions have been empty. Vienna’s historic cafes and restaurants are struggling to survive. Century-old coffee houses are being used as study rooms for home-schooling teenagers rather than for paying customers. 

Before coronavirus it was easy to travel by train to Prague or Budapest from Vienna for the weekend or board a sleeper train at Vienna in the evening and wake up in Venice. People regularly commuted to Vienna for work from nearby Bratislava in Slovakia. Now travelling to neighbouring countries involves filling in forms, taking corona tests and even quarantine.

Before coronavirus, laws had been brought in making it illegal to wear face masks in Austria. It was often only possible to pay with cash in shops. Now FFP 2 masks are mandatory and paying by bank card is standard. Coronavirus has also stopped the traditional greeting of shaking hands. 

Last summer brought some normality, but after cases rose dramatically in the autumn, we were locked down again. Austria has suffered badly in terms of its economy, which is particularly dependent on winter tourism, and this has led to protests against the lockdown. However, the outdoor-loving Austrians continue to enjoy hiking and winter sports, with skiing and ice-skating permitted for locals even during the pandemic. Hopefully with the vaccine rollout, better times are ahead. 

 

 

 

 


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