One of the features of the current pandemic is that the more developed countries especially in Europe seem to have been hit the hardest in terms of the current number of cases. Joe Penney writes that Europe was also the hub from which cases spread to the rest of the world.
As Covid-19 cripples the U.S. and ravages many countries in the world, politicians are battling to craft a narrative of who is to blame for its damage. The virus started in China, of course, but narratives of how it went from epidemic to global pandemic often leave out a crucial element: the role of Europe.
European countries have been hit much harder than Asian nations and have spread the virus significantly more than other regions. The Intercept went through news reports of Covid-19 index cases across the world, and the results were startling. Travel from and within Europe preceded the first coronavirus cases in at least 93 countries across all five continents, accounting for more than half of the world’s index cases. Travel from Italy alone preceded index cases in at least 46 countries, compared to 27 countries associated with travel from China.
One of the reasons European travel facilitated the spread of the coronavirus was because those countries were late to close air links. Italy closed one terminal of Milan’s main airport on March 16, when the northern region of Lombardy already had 3,760 cases in a population of 10 million people. By contrast, China had shut down flights out of Hubei province on January 23, when there were 500 reported cases worldwide and 17 deaths in Hubei among a population of 58 million. London’s Heathrow and Paris’s Charles De Gaulle airports are still open as cases soar in both of those cities, while Spain’s air operators only closed major terminals in Madrid and Barcelona when air traffic had ground to a halt anyway.
But as China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong were stabilizing their coronavirus rates through a combination of massive testing, rigorous contact tracing, and strict lockdown measures, infections in European countries were shooting up. Despite witnessing the devastation in China, and the rapid response put in place by its neighbors, European countries were flatfooted as the virus spread rapidly from Milan, Paris, and London to countries in Africa, Latin America, and its European neighbors.
“Did European countries ask for advice from Asian ones? I don’t think so,” said Dr. François Dabis, director of the Agency for Research on AIDS and Hepatitis in Bordeaux, France. “We saw the reactions of Asian countries, but at the time we didn’t think they would be a model because we didn’t believe we would have the same epidemic.” European public health officials were initially modeling their responses to coronavirus after the 2003 SARS epidemic, which was more locally contained in Asia, he added.
Many East Asian countries built up their screening and contact tracing capacity after SARS, though South Korea had learned its key lessons from its experience with the MERS outbreak in 2015, when testing production was delayed by regulations. Due to that, South Korea was ready to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak with fast and massive testing. “After 2015, they changed the law to allow, in the event of a public health crisis or infectious disease outbreak, that they could more much more rapidly approve and deploy new diagnostic tests,” using the World Health Organization’s test as a model, said Dr. Claire Standley, researcher at Georgetown University’s Department of International Health. The Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, only allowed a specific Centers for Disease Control and Prevention test in the first few weeks, drastically damaging the U.S.’s ability to contain the pandemic.
Some of the spread from Europe was facilitated by the elites in Africa who are the ones who travel to Europe for meetings and other reasons.
The relatively few cases in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America may simply signify that they are in the early stages of infection and testing and may follow Europe and the US in rapid escalation of cases.