PARIS—Europeans woke to the news Thursday that U.S. President Donald Trump has banned most of them from traveling to the United States for at least a month. And while some of the details seemed to be confusing and contradictory, there was no mistaking his administration’s effort to blame their governments, and the European Union specifically, for the growing novel coronavirus crisis in the United States.
The pandemic is “not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” said a European Union statement on Thursday morning. Directly contradicting Trump’s assertion that his administration has been “in frequent contact with our allies,” they said the EU “disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.”
In the meantime, media all over the Continent picked up on a line in testimony before Congress on Wednesday by Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Europe,” he said, “is the new China.”
Many commentators saw Trump’s action as overtly political, punishing the EU, which he has criticized frequently, while exempting the post-Brexit United Kingdom from the travel ban.
“Trump needed a narrative to exonerate his administration from any responsibility in the crisis,” the former French ambassador to Washington, Gérard Araud, wrote on Twitter. “The foreigner is always a good scapegoat.” Since Trump had already blamed the Chinese, now it was the Europeans’ turn and not any Europeans, but those of the EU. “Doesn’t make sense but ideologically healthy,” at least from Trump’s point of view.
Commentary in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung was even more acerbic. Trump's address was "a speech that leaves you speechless," wrote its New York correspondent. Trump "talks about the virus the way he talks about illegal immigrants. And he has only one recipe for that: sealing borders, building walls."
If Trump is looking for kudos from Great Britain for its exemption from his travel ban, he may be disappointed. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was asked Thursday morning about the travel ban. “We haven’t believed that that’s the right thing to do, the evidence here doesn’t support that," he said. "What we are trying to do is contain the virus while recognizing that it is now likely that it will spread more significantly.”
While Trump has been widely criticized for his administration’s handling of the pandemic looming on the American horizon, he has been praised for his relatively early decision to suspend travel from China and Iran. In his remarks from the Oval Office on Wednesday evening, he said, “The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hot spots,” which is true.
“As a result,” Trump said, “a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.” In fact, as Trump’s own experts have testified, one of the biggest problems containing the spread of what Trump called “a foreign virus” in the U.S. has been the inability to identify the original source in any given group of infections.
According to World Health Organization numbers as of Wednesday, China—where the disease now known as COVID-19 was first diagnosed in December—has counted 80,955 infections and 3,162 deaths. In Europe the situation is indeed serious, but not yet that serious. Italy has been hit very hard, with more than 10,000 confirmed cases and 631 deaths as of Wednesday, and Rome has taken extreme measures, effectively locking down the entire country to try to contain the spread of the disease. Great Britain has 373 confirmed cases.
The U.S. up to Wednesday had recorded 696 confirmed infections, but testing has been so poorly handled and so limited that the number is considered highly unreliable. As testing improves, the figure is expected to increase dramatically.
France, Spain and Germany each have between 1,000 and 2,000 confirmed cases, while the rest of the countries in what the World Health Organization calls “The European Region,” have fewer than 500, in most instances far fewer. But they are lumped together as part of what is called the Schengen Area, which includes 26 countries where travel is allowed without any border controls.
A week ago, Vice President Mike Pence was pointing this out—“The nature of the European Union is one doesn’t require a passport to move around”— signaling the administration’s consideration of the action taken by Trump on Wednesday night.
REPORTS FROM THE FIELD
While the EU does appear to have been scapegoated by Trump, it is also true that its several states have not been able to develop a single coherent and effective approach to the coronavirus threat, and the situations are dramatically different in different countries with different cultures, even as the infection spreads.
In Germany (1,296 infections, 2 deaths), Chancellor Angela Merkel warned this week that as much as 70 percent of the population could be infected, and the government reportedly is experimenting with a system of drive-thru tests, enabling people to be screened for coronavirus without ever getting out of their cars.
President Emmanuel Macron warned last week that in France (1,774 cases, 33 deaths) the epidemic is “inevitable,” and a series of measures have been taken to try to contain the spread, stopping short of full lockdowns. He is due to make a major address to the nation on Thursday night.
Meanwhile the impact on tourism in the world’s most visited country and its capital, Paris, already is being felt. The Louvre Museum in Paris, for instance, was closed down briefly last week by concerned staff. It is now open but often virtually empty. Overnight many American tourists were scrambling to book flights back to the United States.
Daily Beast correspondent Dana Kennedy reports from the Riviera that most of the people she’s talked to refuse to take the coronavirus threat seriously, including her doctor when she saw him earlier this week.
“He was wearing a mask and had an office full of patients,” Kennedy writes. “He said he had yet to see one patient with the coronavirus. My doctor is a solid, intelligent guy I've known for 10 years. ‘We're being manipulated by the media and who knows what else,’ he said.”
The Netherlands (382 cases, 4 deaths) has been criticized for what some critics see as too cool a response, says correspondent Nadette De Visser. The basic approach considers that the disease cannot be prevented, but may be managed.
The head of the public health institute RIVM, Jaap van Dissel, is quoted Thursday in the Dutch daily De Volkskrant explaining that the Dutch policy aims to make sure the Dutch health services can handle the influx of patients. The idea is to “make it as hard as possible for the virus. Not by putting a fire hose on it and asking for applause,” van Dissell said, “but rather by putting a damper on as many little fires as possible, so the fire can be extinguished. Isolate cases. Avoid transmission. Trace new cases quickly. All this in an effort to prevent the accumulation of sick people that could cause the health care system to be disrupted."
In Spain (1,639 cases, 36 deaths), Itxu Díaz reports, one member of the cabinet, Equality Minister Irene Montero, has tested positive for coronavirus and her husband has been quarantined. Both attended the huge International Women's Day march on Sunday, as did the rest of the cabinet, raising the question how many other members of the government might be infected.
The situation in Spain is so serious, Díaz writes, that many people are saying they think Trump’s travel ban makes sense, “despite the fact most Spaniards detest him.” The Madrid regional government reportedly has been begging the government for 10 days to take drastic measures, but the government continued through Sunday, the day of the march, telling Spaniards that this was "a flu" and that no extraordinary measures were necessary.
Schools and universities have been shut down but, as in other countries, students appear to see this as a holiday. “Last night the bars and terraces of Madrid were full of students celebrating the suspension of classes,” writes Díaz. Office workers are leaving the capital to “tele-commute” from their home towns in Galicia, Valencia, Andalusia, and in many cases probably taking the virus with them.
“The example of Italy has been useless,” says Díaz.
In Rome, the capital of an entire nation on lockdown, Correspondent-at-Large Barbie Latza Nadeau has been tracking disaster hour by hour.
“This city is in a state of shock after harsher restrictions were laid down last night,” she wrote on Thursday morning. “The [Trump] travel ban for us has been in effect (though not official) for quite some time.”
“I sense a feeling of relief that we may see the end of this dark tunnel though,” Nadeau wrote. “I think when you are in the middle of the worst of the pandemic outside of China (we are at 12,462 cases and 827 deaths according to the latest Italian government numbers) you sort of welcome someone trying to stop it.
“I do think Italy failed initially on its handling of the lockdown and I am sure they would also agree that the spread is almost entirely a result of mishandling of the first few cases, not believing that ‘patient one’ could have it because he hadn’t traveled. Denial is deadly in cases like this.
“On one hand, and this is from a ground zero perspective, the situation feels less hopeless now that the restrictions are tighter than it did a few days ago when it seemed out of control,” Nadeau wrote.
“We were also told last night the numbers here might peak in another week, meaning we could easily hit 50,000 infections in Italy. The effect of the lockdown won’t be seen for at least two weeks. If it failed? God only knows.”