Extreme measures: European governments pull out the stops to slow COVID-19

Although Canada is still in the early stages of its COVID-19 response, a look around the world may provide a glimpse of measures that could yet come into force as the epidemic progresses.

Europe's measures could offer a glimpse of Canada's future

Few people walk at the Naviglio Grande canal, one of the favorite spots for night life in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Italy entered its second day under a nationwide lockdown after a government decree extended restrictions on movement from the hard-hit north to the rest of the country to prevent the spreading of coronavirus. (Antonio Calanni/The Associated Press)

Although Canada is still in the early stages of its COVID-19 response, a look around the world may provide a glimpse of measures that could come into force here as the epidemic progresses.

Some fairly extreme measures have been planned — and in some cases have been already implemented — in countries from Ireland to Japan.

When China locked down Hubei province and put millions of people in quarantine, many Western observers believed they were viewing the response of an authoritarian government obsessed with people control.

The World Health Organization, in a February 28 report, described China's measures as "perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history."

But Italy has now shown that a democracy can take similar measures when the threat is deemed severe enough. Although Italy's travel ban allows for more exceptions than China's, it also extends to the whole country. And it is accompanied by a string of other stringent measures.

Today, the Giuseppe Conte government in Rome said that all first-home mortgage payments in Italy are to be suspended. The government has suggested a freeze of 18 months. Italians will also get a tax holiday to avoid driving people — especially the self-employed —into bankruptcy.

That in turn will almost certainly require more government action to protect Italian banks from going bust, because they depend on those mortgage payments to meet their obligations.

And that help from the bank will have to come from a government that has stopped collecting taxes.

It all means a much-larger-than-expected deficit this year, in a country that already has trouble balancing its books (Italy's economy is still smaller than it was before the 2008 financial crisis).

Justice delayed

Not only are Italians free of fees and taxes until March 31, those who had court proceedings scheduled prior to March 22 will see their cases postponed. That goes for both civil and criminal proceedings.

It's the kind of suspension that can be expected in other countries as governments move to prevent all activities that bring people into contact with strangers. Britain's government has already hinted that it may order its police to focus only on the most serious crimes during the second phase of its virus response plan.

Meanwhile, six inmates died as prison riots swept Italy recently, while dozens more used the disturbances to escape.

Prisoners' rights group Antigone said the riots were partly to protest restrictive measures imposed on prisoners to prevent the spread of the virus, but were more out of fear of how the virus itself could spread in unsanitary, overcrowded penitentiaries.

Relatives of Rebibbia prison's inmates face police after inmates staged a protest against new coronavirus containment measures, in Rome, Monday, March 9, 2020. (Cecilia Fabiano/The Associated Press)

Family members of inmates have demonstrated outside several prisons, demanding early release and other measures to protect their family members.

The country's police, meanwhile, are stretched to the limit enforcing quarantine rules, which require people to present proof they have valid reasons to travel.

It's a sign of how far the virus can reach into and disrupt a country's vital functions in ways that few nations have seen  in the modern era.

Yesterday in the U.S., presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren sent letters to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and three private prison firms demanding to know their plans for virus containment.

Ban on funerals

Ireland is nowhere near as far along as Italy on the coronavirus curve, having seen about 50 cases so far.

But Ireland's taoiseach (prime minister) told the country that it should brace for an epidemic that ultimately will affect about half the population.

Leo Varadkar also announced the immediate creation of an emergency fund of 3 billion Euros to deal with the virus. (The equivalent amount for Canada's larger population would be about $37 billion.)

Staff conduct a public awareness campaign for COVID-19 in the baggage hall of Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport, Dublin, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (Brian Lawless/The Associated Press)

Varadkar warned the nation that the government was bracing for a death toll as high as 85,000, in a country with fewer than 5 million people.

"Up to 50 or 60 per cent (of the population) could get the virus," he said. "There will be a significant proportion that will require critical care. And a percentage that we don't know, we honestly don't know it yet — it could be less than one per cent, it could be as much as three or 3.4 per cent mortality."

The Irish Association of Funeral Directors has instructed its members not to hold any kind of funeral for COVID-19 victims, but to place them in body bags immediately and leave the bags sealed until the remains are cremated or buried. Family members are being warned to stay away from funeral homes.

Sober warnings

German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed Varadkar's words about the eventual reach of the epidemic, although she chose a more private forum.

"Sixty to 70 per cent of people in Germany will become infected with the coronavirus," she told a meeting of her party's lawmakers, in remarks that were quickly leaked to the newspaper Bild.

Germany has yet to introduce the kind of lockdown that has been implemented in Italy, but Merkel made it clear that the country expects to shut down sporting and cultural events — something that is happening across Europe.

Around the world, governments were repeating that same message yesterday.

"The next two months will be crucial," said Greece's Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias today, announcing the total closure of all schools and public sporting events in the country, as well as a month-long ban on conferences.

"We will need to ask Victorians to do things we have never asked them to do before," warned Premier Daniel Andrews of the Australian state of Victoria today, describing the closure of schools in the state as "inevitable".

Emergency payouts

Given that sense of inevitability, several European countries are considering, or have already authorized, emergency payments for anyone who is sick or self-quarantined.

Italy has led the way with financial measures, but Ireland has also increased its sick pay rates by 50 per cent and loosened eligibility rules.

Tax agencies in several countries have announced that they are ready to be flexible and work with businesses that are unable to pay their tax bills on time because of collapsing revenues.

Harvard economist Jason Furman has recommended that the U.S. government act now to avoid a virus-fuelled recession by simply writing a cheque for $1000 to every adult and $500 for every child.

One in five out of action

Some countries, such as the U.K., have also considered suspending certain rules about hours and workplace safety. The British government is reportedly considering putting into abeyance its rules about the maximum number of hours a truck driver can spend at the wheel. The reason is to ensure that if large numbers of drivers become ill, those that remain will be able to keep food and other essentials moving on the country's roads.

Britain's contingency plan says the country must prepare to have one-fifth of its entire workforce out of action at the same time. It's a reminder that, just as many people will be unable to work because of coronavirus, others will be asked to work more.

Racegoers use hand sanitizer to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, on day one of the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse, Cheltenham, England, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Simon Cooper/The Associated Press)

Britain is also bringing in rules to protect employees who volunteer in hospitals and senior citizens' homes from being fired from their regular jobs over absences.

So far, Britain is only in phase one, the "Containment Phase", of a four-phase response plan.

The next phase — the "Delay Phase" — will bring more drastic measures, the government has warned.

Among those measures reportedly under consideration by the Boris Johnson government are bans on public events and the declaration of no-go zones around focal points of contagion.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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