Weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Europe, a number of EU and national policymakers insisted that there should be “no panic”.
Likewise, in the early days, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) were reluctant to use the word ‘pandemic’ in public.
ECDC director Andrea Ammon told EURACTIV on 7 February: “Right now, it doesn’t look like someone needs to be worried. We still consider for Europe, the risk is low.” She added, though, that pandemic preparedness plans should be sped up.
In the same vein, in late February, the EU’s Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides was saying we must not give in to panic.
But has the non-panic rhetoric actually had positive results?
In most member states, citizens did not panic over the virus, so much so that they ignored confinement measures, made unnecessary trips, organised lockdown parties, and queued to buy marijuana before the real confinement began.
Meanwhile, national leaders assured the public that their countries were sufficiently equipped to face a crisis, only to admit, weeks later, that there were not enough masks and ventilators. Then they started unilaterally closing borders and taking uncoordinated action.
In theory, it should have been European Council President Charles Michel’s role to coordinate EU member states. But apparently, he did not, or did not manage to. His role in this crisis has been low-profile at best.
It’s not easy for a politician to have to raise public awareness to the panic level, especially when it involves pushing EU citizens, used to high-quality life, out of their comfort zone. But in this case, such a scenario should have been examined.
The European Commission was undoubtedly the first institution to put pressure on member states to take immediate action and brace for a pandemic. But its communication tactics have not been successful. Perhaps it should have been louder and clearer.
With hindsight, it would have been better to overreact and panic, even if the danger was not so evident at the start. EURACTIV has learned that there were voices in the Commission asking for more direct rhetoric, but they evidently didn’t carry the day.
Whatever the reason, advising EU countries and citizens not to panic, and then speaking of an ‘unprecedented disaster’ only two weeks later clearly raises an issue about pre-emptive thinking, preparedness and communication in EU institutions.
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Informal high-level videoconference of Ministers of Foreign Affairs/Trade.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]