After three months of this health crisis, the accumulated data begin to allow us to start reading its history, or at least its first part, It emerges that in Europe won the countries usually considered weaker, the least wealthy and the clearly poor won. Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Hungary or Slovakia they have had – in proportion to the population – far fewer and often less than a tenth of the deaths of the countries of rich Europe such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain. They had far fewer infections, they managed to control the curve of the epidemic and to bend it earlier.
Fortuna? Maybe also. Perhaps fewer people carrying the virus moved to that central eastern region of Europe in the decisive weeks of January and February. But some clues in the data suggest that there is also something else: those countries were more humble, because they were more aware of the fragility of their health systems. For this reason they did not take lightly the signals that came from Italy and Spain and decided to apply earlier, and with more rigor, regimes of lockdown more stringent. They knew they couldn’t afford to take risks.
The photograph of the situation
A photograph of the painting of March 15 allows us to understand how the journey of the two parts of Europe – the richest in the West, the least richest in the East – diverged very early in this crisis. Italy already had 1,809 coronavirus deaths and 24,000 infections that day. Spain had 294 deaths and 7988 cases, but the rest of Europe could think they were almost unscathed. France, the third country then most hit in absolute size, had 127 deaths and 5423 cases of infection. Many in the rest of Western Europe tacitly, and somewhat disdainfully, suspected that the epidemic in Southern Europe was the result of the disorganization of the countries involved.
Looking at the Government Response Stringency Index of the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government – a point measure of the restrictiveness of lockdowns, from 1 for maximum opening to 100 for maximum closing – in mid-March the group of countries “Humble” had already moved to anticipate the contagion on the basis of what he was witnessing in Italy. Albania was 84, Slovakia 71, Romania 67, Poland 60, Hungary 59, Greece 57. The wealthier countries seemed decidedly more relaxed (Germany 37, France a 50, Belgium 53, Great Britain 11, Switzerland 46, Sweden A confinement tightening in almost all western Europe would only come in late March, ten days later, when it was now clear that the epidemic was not just a problem with Italy or Spain. It was a fatal ten days, which could have cost tens of thousands of deaths.
Two and a half months later there are all signs that the undervaluation of the strongest countries in Europe has resulted in a very high cost. And that the humility of the poor countries of Europe has paid off. It made them more forward-looking and less fragile. According to Worldometer data, Albania today has only 11 deaths per million inhabitants, Great Britain 536 deaths. Greece has 16 deaths per million inhabitants, Belgium 795. Slovakia 5 dead, France 432. Switzerland 220 dead (but with data that seem inconsistently low, after careful analysis), Romania 60. Germany 99 (with caution similar to that which applies to Swiss data), while Poland 60.
A dramatic pandemic is certainly not the suitable context for generic and moralizing parables on the value of humility and prudence and on the risks inherent in excessive self-confidence. But the awareness of their own fragility seems to have made neighboring countries such as Albania or Greece a great service.
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