In March 2020, Italy became the first EU country to go into lockdown. Almost all EU member states soon followed Italy’s example. In the early months of the pandemic, facemasks were hard to get hold of, widespread testing was not yet available and, of course, no vaccines had yet been developed. Lockdowns were therefore one of the only effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus. Limiting the amount of contact between people is the most efficient way to stop the spread of an airborne disease. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, does that mean they were the right approach?
Lockdowns come at a cost. It is hard to say just how much Europe’s economies suffered during the lockdown, but the IMF estimates a 7% fall in GDP for 2020 (the biggest economic downturn since World War II). Yet assessing the wisdom of the lockdown strategy is not as simple as counting economic costs. The damage to both the economy and healthcare systems would almost certainly have been much worse if the virus had been allowed to rip through society unrestricted. Much harder to measure are the social, psychological and educational costs of lockdown.
Young graduates entered a mostly non-existent job market and lockdown measures have been directly linked to increased loneliness, anxiety, and depressive symptoms in individuals across Europe. Finally, children missed out on weeks of in-school education. The loss of education will be most severe for those with inadequate access to study at home.
As the decision to implement a lockdown is purely the competence of EU member states, lockdowns differed in timing and extent across the EU. This led to frustration, especially among the young Europeans we talked to for our 100 European Voices focus group project. For example, Zita from the Netherlands told us she would have preferred a more coordinated, European approach:
We could have just closed down European borders, maybe. Then we would have been able to travel […] within Europe and then keep the economy going.
In another focus group, Myrto from Greece told us his personal strategy for coping with life in lockdown:
I had to force myself to incorporate little things [like walks outside] in my daily life, to keep me sane.
Others, like Theodora from Romania, struggled to find a lockdown routine:
I was so lonely that at a certain point I didn’t even want to do the stuff that I would normally want to do.
To get a response, we asked the same question to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from each of the biggest ideological groupings in the Parliament. Expand the cards below to find out what politicians think of lockdown measures in the EU:
The decisions on applying lockdowns are a national competence and so different governments took different approaches, and that is the only correct way to approach the problem. Circumstances are different in every country and local governments know best how to deal with the situation. They are also the ones who then answer for their Corona policy to the citizens. It’s difficult to give an overarching evaluation.
It’s clear, however, that the lockdowns were driven by virologic and epidemiologic concerns of experts and were as such necessary for the health and safety of our citizens. Unfortunately, many other perspectives and problems such as social isolation and mental health, intra-familiar violence, economic damage, etc. were not always brought into the equation when organizing lockdowns. Decision-making did not always respect democratic principles such as Parliamentary input or the creation of a proper legal framework.
We see that there have been some relevant differences in the way countries have managed the crisis. Some made audacious choices quite early, since the very beginning, first by closing the borders to stop people’s circulation, and by that, virus contagiousness. Other countries reacted later, like France and Belgium, and they have suffered from it because, Belgium, for example, which has been one of the least reacting countries, was also the most hit country in the world. Belgium has indeed the highest rate of deaths per inhabitant on a global scale. So, we cannot say it’s been a crisis management example.
Today, we’re maybe exiting this sanitary crisis, as we have to carefully state that but, actually, we have also faced an economic and social crisis, given also the psychological consequences linked to the freedom restrictions and to the socio-economic crisis. I think that now we need to re-open as soon as possible, support vaccination for those who wish to get it of course, and overcome the freedom restriction approach which exclusively takes into account the saturation of hospital beds. There should be other criteria to consider.
Curious to know more about life in EU lockdowns and how young Europeans coped? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
Were lockdowns the right approach? How did you cope (or not cope) with staying inside? Do you feel your country took the right approach? What lessons do you hope politicians and governments learn for the next crisis? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!