Funeral home workers remove a coffin from a coronavirus victim in Gilly, Belgium on March 26

Europe and the US are reeling from the threat they never thought would come

The coronavirus crisis has had a similar trajectory in most countries: denial of danger, alarm, unprecedented emergency measures and an overwhelmed health system.

Listen to the scientists, says everyone. That’s right. Let’s take a look at what Dr Anthony Fauci, the most highly scientific person in the White House crisis cabinet dealing with the coronavirus, has said. “You don’t make a calendar [on when and how this will end]. It is the virus that makes the calendar.”

Fauci said this about the debate promoted by Trump and some businessmen and large investors about the possibility of ending the most drastic measures in mid-April and preventing further economic damage. But your answer is valid for all governments regarding any issue in the fight against the coronavirus. As long as it finds carriers to reside in, the virus will continue to advance. Only the lack of hosts will end it, and hence the measures of confinement and social distancing.

This situation forces governments to react to events, and they often seem to be overcome. They are used to telling citizens that everything is under control. Citizens also have a logical tendency to think that, even when it is wrong, the government knows what it is doing. They live in a country in Western Europe or the United States, one of the richest in the world, with a great health system. Science and technology, at a level of development never seen before in human history, are at your service, even in the smallest detail of daily life.

Unlike people living in the Third World, we are indestructible. There is no problem that money or technology cannot solve. 

All of these presumptions have been razed.

Suddenly, one day they discover that their health personnel do not have masks or gloves. That they should use such rudimentary methods as garbage bags to cover themselves or that their boss tells them to only use one pair of gloves at a time, not two to reinforce protection. They learn that some nursing homes are a focus of contagion that ends the lives of their occupants. That all governments compete in a first world bazaar to get to replace the sanitary material that is consumed every day in dimensions never before known. The problem is not having enough money, but finding the same thing that everyone desperately seeks.

Europe has lived a particular image since the Second World War: entire empty neighbourhoods as if all its inhabitants had fled. Consumers are emptying supermarket shelves and gathering food as if it were going to start a war: funeral and janitorial workers covered in protective suits as if they were facing chemical warfare.

Governments have among their main functions to give security to citizens, and now they cannot do it, even if they try.

Each country that believed that it would not receive the impact of the coronavirus is falling like dominoes. The USA is afraid of occupying the disastrous since now Italy and Spain suffer. It is already the country in the world with the most cases, ahead of China, according to the estimate of the Johns Hopkins University. The 1,800 ICU beds in New York City are slated to be occupied this Friday, according to a calculation by the federal agency FEMA. At the 540-bed Elmhurst Hospital in the New York borough of Queens, the situation has escaped. “It is apocalyptic,” a doctor told The New York Times. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Donald Trump showed unrealistic optimism when he said that “we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel” The country had surpassed the figure of a thousand deaths. It was a case of historical blindness because that is the phrase that President Lyndon Johnson and General Westmoreland repeated to convince sceptical journalists that they were about to win the Vietnam War. Since that time, it has remained as the phrase that symbolizes governments that sell an unrealizable illusion.

Until last week, the Dutch government was one of those who had opted for group immunity – the same already abandoned by the British – so as not to be forced to take drastic measures. Recommendations were enough, even jokes like that of his prime minister when he laughed at a press conference when he was about to shake someone else’s hand. In the past 24 hours, he has seen 78 people die, a 22% increase from the previous day. The total death toll is 434 and will continue to rise.

The United Kingdom has begun the course of the most draconian measures. Their hospitals start to suffer the consequences of the delay. Richard Horton, the editor of the medical journal The Lancet, says his country “wasted” the entire month of February when he should have been preparing. He claims that it is “a national scandal” that medical personnel do not have enough material.

The French government, which also failed in its initial attempt to limit itself to recommendations when it saw citizens fill streets and parks last Sunday, has an acute deficit in FFP2 masks, the safest. Like everyone else. You have chosen to react quickly and, as usual, with promises. In these cases, it is not convenient to fall short with the number. His Minister of Health announced that he would get 250 million masks. 

The death toll in the UK and France was the highest on a day Thursday since the start of the crisis. 

In Italy – the country that has suffered the most brutal blow with 8,210 deaths – 6,205 health professionals have been infected, of whom 37 have died, according to a medical association. In Spain, the doctors, nurses and guards affected are 9,444, according to data offered this Friday, and a high number of professionals are isolated after having tested positive. Those who bathe in hospitals say that they return to using single-use masks or that they improvise forms of protection. They are doing their work “in a situation of total insecurity and helplessness”, according to the general advice of all these health groups.

The Spanish government is immersed in a race as desperate for supplies as other countries in the world. It has agreed to a massive purchase from China worth 423 million, but that contract will take place over several weeks.  

Where it has stumbled is knowing that 9,000 rapid tests that the government obtained in China through a Spanish intermediary cannot be used due to their low reliability. “We verified the manufacturer, and the national supplier was trustworthy,” said the health minister. It was an explanation that also sounded like an excuse, but in any case, it is evident that it is better to admit it and not use tests that do not work. 

An Ifema pavilion, in Madrid, enabled to receive patients with coronavirus.

The government’s problem is that Pedro Sánchez announced on Saturday that Spain already had these rapid detection methods: “These are reliable, homologated tests. And this is very important, homologation because they must have all the health guarantees”, He said. Every phrase that is meant to inspire confidence can turn into a severe setback if expectations are not met in a matter of days. 

Where others will see a mishap or failure, the PP saw an opportunity. Sixteen party deputies launched themselves on Twitter on Thursday to attack the government, taking advantage of the case of failed tests and others. All of them were conveniently retweeted by the accounts of the party and the parliamentary group. “Minister, from the first minute you have had the loyalty of this party to fight the coronavirus,” said Cuca Gamarra, spokesman for the PP in the Health Commission, in a new definition of the word ‘loyalty’. 

Meanwhile, the Madrid president is still awaiting the arrival of two planes with supplies from China that were so close to arriving last week that she demanded that the government have no trouble landing. No one knows if these planes came into existence, beyond the statements of Isabel Díaz Ayuso. 

In countries with a more polarized and tense political scene (USA, United Kingdom, Spain, Italy …), there is no rest or truce in the political battle for many corpses that have to be buried every day. 

The country where they did not forget

European governments were very attentive to the news about the SARS pandemics in 2002 and the MERS in 2012. When that emergency, which did not seriously affect Europe, passed, they all sighed with relief. Not in South Korea, the country that has now reacted most quickly and effectively to this crisis. “We will never forget that incident. It is sealed in our minds,” the head of the leading infectious disease research centre told Reuters a few days ago. “We suffered a lot, and we feel indebted.” 

Europe felt impregnable and has now painfully discovered that it is not.

Note: the data of the healthcare personnel infected in Spain (9,444) has been updated with the figures released this Friday.

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