BRUSSELS (UrduPoint News / Sputnik – 25th November, 2020) With the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic raging across Europe and governments introducing more restrictions, people are getting tired of lockdowns, which seem to have no end in sight, and shopkeepers are becoming more concerned about their businesses’ future as the holiday season approaches.
After relative stabilization in the summer, again, it was Italy, Spain, France, the UK and Belgium that became the worst-hit by the return of the pandemic, with a vengeance. The one and only fundamental problem for each EU member state now is to avoid the saturation of emergency services in hospitals, as the curve of infections has been even steeper in the last few weeks than during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring. Italy even hesitated to close its borders in the first two weeks of November, so bad was the situation, with overflowing hospitals, and COVID patients having to be moved around the country to avoid the paralysis of the health system.
As it was in the spring, the coronavirus-related restrictions are significantly affecting the so-called non-essential shopkeepers, except those selling food, and businesses of the Horeca sector hotels, restaurants and cafes.
“The holiday season approaches, with Christmas in one month, and it is very hard for us here to keep the faith in a future for our shop and for us. We are at the very end of our reserves. If we cannot open for Saint Nicholas [Day, marked on December 6] and for Christmas, we are dead in the water! We will not survive, and when you are self-employed in this country, you do not have any right to unemployment benefits,” Christine Pinchart, a shopkeeper in Brussels selling toys and games, whose large shop has been closed for weeks, told Sputnik.
According to the shopkeeper, though the government helps those who are self-employed, this assistance does not cover their fixed costs.
Fortunately, as of Monday, the peak seems over in all European countries, even in Spain and France. But it took major efforts, such as the same full lockdown as for the first wave, except for schools and offices. Restaurants, bars and clubs are suffering most, since there is no end in sight for their confinement in France. Meanwhile, Spain gave the green light to their reopening just last weekend, within strict opening hours, until 10:30 p.m. local time.
At the same time, people are trying to circumvent the restrictions. People living in some border regions cross the border to shop or go to a restaurant. For example, French citizens go to Germany and Luxemburg, where shopping and eating out is still possible. The same for the Belgians living in a lockdown and curfew, but going out to Luxemburg and the Netherlands.
Nevertheless, it is still unclear whether the pandemic will recede enough to make it possible for the governments to open the gates and say “Merry Christmas” to their citizens in time, or it will be a lonely Christmas and New Year, wishing well to family and friends on via a computer or telephone screen. If the latter scenario comes to pass, the anger of the people might boomerang and hit the political deciders square in the face.
EU DESPERATELY TRYING TO COORDINATE RESPONSE TO PANDEMIC
The reaction of the Brussels deciders, in the European Commission or its administration, has been awfully slow and inefficient from the very first day of the pandemic. After a few months of total inactivity, watching Italy, then Spain, France, the UK and the others enter a deep crisis, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen produced a video tutorial on how to wash your hands and then had to present the excuses of the commission for its total lack of support to Italy, the first and worst-hit European country.
Then, the EU managed to participate in the repatriation of European citizens stuck abroad. It also gave a trickle of money, a few tens of millions, to specific COVID-19 research. But it is only during the summer that the European machinery finally started producing something really worth it finances.
A package of measures worth 750 billion Euros ($891 billion) was put together and included health measures tests and vaccines and economic measures to avoid a deadly wave of bankruptcies in 2021. The package had to be adopted on November 16, but Hungary and Poland blocked the European recovery plan, as well as the seven-year budget of 1,074 billion euros, which it must come to supplement, as the EU conditioned the distribution of its recovery funds to the respect of the rule of law. Both countries are under the formal EU process over concerns for judicial independence there.
“This is a real crisis flaring up,” a Belgian civil servant involved in the negotiations told Sputnik.
As for deconfinement, Europe promises to fully coordinate the distribution of vaccines and tests and the measures to exit lockdowns for the end-of-year period.
In addition, the European Commission continues to work with the EU member states to develop COVID-19 vaccination programs so that they would be ready when the vaccine against the coronavirus becomes available.
The EU member states’ joint work seems more effective in preparing for access to vaccines. The 27 heads of state and government met twice since the end of October by video conference to discuss the evolution of the pandemic, as part of their regular dialogue. On this occasion, they particularly insisted on the need to fight disinformation around vaccines.
“A balance to be found. We have to learn the lessons of the [recent] past. Any relaxation of lockdowns will have to be gradual. We all want to celebrate the end of the year celebrations but in safety … I call for the coordination of member states on their measures to fight the pandemic, on their efforts to harmonize quarantine rules or mutual recognition of tests for the virus.
It remains complicated. We are not there yet.” President of the European Council Charles Michel said after a videoconference among the heads of state and government of the EU.
Gathered twice by videoconference for summits mainly devoted to the management of the pandemic, European leaders discussed how to ease restrictive measures in the run-up to the holiday season without undue slackening, which would lead to “a third wave” of the coronavirus.
Another issue is the lack of common standards when it comes to testing. Though the European Commission formally recommended that member states use rapid antigenic tests under certain conditions to better contain the pandemic, the multiplicity of these tests and variety of standards requires the establishment of European criteria, which are not ready yet. The 27 countries failed to establish mutual recognition of PCR tests, which has been a problem for several months.
The situation is even worse when it comes to antigen testing. Brussels, which put 100 million euros on the table, launched a public contract to acquire these new, faster but less reliable tests. But a large number of member states remain wary of these new tests.
The Christmas gift of Brussels to the Europeans might be the availability of the first vaccines at the end of December, as Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as Moderna, announced earlier in November that their vaccines showed a 95 and 94.5 percent effectiveness rate, respectively. Preorder contracts with laboratories have reached a total of 2.1 billion euros.
“If all goes well, the European Medicines Agency explains to us that the marketing authorizations for BioNtech and Moderna could be issued as early as the second half of December, but only first with a small number of doses,” von der Leyen said.
Commenting on the situation with vaccines in an interview with Sputnik, professor Jean-Luc Gala, a virologist at the UCLouvain university in Belgium, welcomed the EU’s involvement in the equal distribution of the vaccine among member states.
At the same time, the virologist noted that there would be logistical challenges such as storage and transport because several of these vaccines need to be kept at very low temperatures.
“[Another] problem … will be to persuade the high number of people suspicious of vaccines in some countries,” the professor added.
CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS BY VIDEOCONFERENCE OR POSTPONING IT TO JULY?
Since it is difficult to say what the health situation will be at the end of December, when it will be time to celebrate Christmas and New Year, each government is trying to keep the lid on the casserole, full of increasing resentment. For example, French Prime Minister Jean Castex endorsed the extension of confinement until December 1, saying that it would be irresponsible to lift and even lighten it for a moment.
At the same time, the rumor is in Paris that after shops on December 1, or rather November 27, theaters and cinemas will open on December 15, and the police will be tolerant for Christmas and New Year, though rave parties will be strictly forbidden.
“I have the impression our Prime Minister Jean Castex wants to keep people thinking now that there is no hope of seeing a loosening of rules for Christmas and New Year. No shopping, apart from your Christmas tree on the pavement of your florist or on the parking of the supermarket since November 20, and no guests for your Christmas dinner,” Laurence Vautier, the owner of a clothing shop in Paris, told Sputnik.
At the same time, Vautier hopes that this is nothing but a trick and the restrictions will be lifted in mid-December so the shops can reopen and cover their losses.
“I believe it is a trick to keep people respecting the rules as long as possible before the actual period. I expect they will announce the end of confinement on December 15 and for us, shopkeepers, reopening under conditions, even on Friday, November 27, so we can have the crumbs of a failed ‘Black Friday’ and take advantage of shoppers next weekend,” the owner said.
In a bid to keep his business alive, Vautier has created a website for its shop and applied the “click and collect system.” But it is frustrating, as for clothing, people need to touch, try, look and compare with their eyes, the owner added.
“For me, it is a question of survival, very simply. I have eaten up all my reserves and still have to sell a large part of my winter collection, that did not sell until now,” Vautier concluded.
“If we unite our efforts for the next six weeks, we will have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas correctly,” Martin said.
Among other solutions regarding the celebrations, there is one surprising by Frederique Jacobs, head of the infectious disease department at Erasme hospital in Brussels, who proposed postponing Christmas and the end-of-year celebrations to the summer of 2021, in particular, to July-August when the weather is nice. Then, people would be able to have a big party outside.