Albert Camus described the attitude in The Plague: “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”
When it broke out, everybody started washing their hands in innocence. Southern European governments said “we need help, this is not our fault”.
President Macron indicated that the virus was unforeseeable. Nationalist politicians blamed the EU.
The director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said “I’m not sure that there is anything that really would have prevented this.”, though in fairness, the EU level had shown more urgency than its member states.
The virus was foreseeable, and every government in Europe failed. They were not prepared, and they did not act in time. We live in democracies, however, and governments respond to what the opposition, the media, lobbyists or citizen groups push.
Nobody talked about pandemics. No politician would have gained a vote by working on preparing for pandemics. We all failed.
Is it useful to talk about failure and guilt? I think it is. Beyond the fear, there is a lot of anger. People ask why this happened. If we don’t talk about who failed and how, anger does not lead us to improvement.
We can pretend that the pandemic crashed down on our heads from the blue sky, but then we will learn nothing.
The most obvious need now is a comprehensive review of what went wrong – in each member state and at the EU level – and to drastically improve our preparedness. We will learn from South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and others.
Covid-19 has given us a crash course in pandemics. Everybody knows now that an outbreak in one corner of the earth can knock on your door the next day.
We need to prepare and we will. The risk is, however, that we may spend the next years fighting the last war. The next threat may not be a pandemic, it may be 1986 – a nuclear accident – or it may be 2001 – a massive terrorist attack. Or it may be indeed 1914, a new European conflagration.
This article was published by EUObserver on April 22, 2020.