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A decrease in new cases in Europe appears to be ‘a signal’ that restrictions are working, the W.H.O. says.

michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

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Today, the United States and Europe have approached the second wave of the coronavirus in profoundly different ways. My colleagues, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Mitch Smith on what those two responses look like. It’s Tuesday, November 17.

Matina, you cover Europe for The Times and are based in Belgium. So tell us about how the governments of Europe are responding to this second wave of the coronavirus.

matina stevis-gridneff

Well, Michael, I think by mid-October the writing was on the wall that the second wave that everyone had feared would eventually arrive was with us. We were seeing exponential increases in cases. Hospitals were getting saturated. And the reason for that is that in Europe, we had a horrible first wave, followed by very strict lockdowns, which led us into the beautiful European summer where people were able to go to the beach and have a break and pretend life is normal. And that was great. But the price that they paid was pretty high. And so on a Wednesday in late October, I believe it was October 28, both the French President, Emmanuel Macron —

archived recording (emmanuel macron)

[SPEAKING FRENCH]

matina stevis-gridneff

— and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel —

archived recording (angela merkel)

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

matina stevis-gridneff

— in almost simultaneous addresses to their nations announced new lockdowns. [INTERPOSING VOICES] [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

— and —

archived recording

Heading into partial lockdown, the Dutch Prime Minister said too many people hadn’t been sticking to existing rules as he announced a list of new tougher restrictions.

matina stevis-gridneff

More or less, over that last week of October —

archived recording

Ireland has become the latest to toughen up anti-Covid-19 measures, moving the country to the highest level of restrictions similar to the lockdown last March.

matina stevis-gridneff

The majority of the continent was imposing restrictions on its citizens to contain what was clearly an out-of-control second wave.

archived recording

The House of Commons has approved the four-week lockdown in England, which starts at midnight tonight.

michael barbaro

And what are the general features of these lockdowns that occurred, as you said, pretty much at the same time? What do they look like?

matina stevis-gridneff

Generally, across the board, European governments made it quite clear that you should stay at home. In some countries, that’s been actually quite strictly enforced. For example, in Greece, you need to text a number and get a sort of automated permission on six different categories of reasons for which you need to leave your home.

michael barbaro

Oh, wow.

matina stevis-gridneff

So you text your name and number 6, and that means you’re going out for a little walk or to walk your pet. And if you bump into a police officer, they would check if you’ve actually sent that text. So while enforcement has ranged in Europe, largely, people were told, stay at home, don’t do anything unless it’s truly essential. Don’t go you know, popping out for a coffee or a croissant or whatever. But one thing that was different to the first wave is that across the board in the vast majority of European countries, governments really tried to keep schools open. And that’s been a distinctive feature of their response to the second wave. There’s been a real effort to get kids to school or childcare and not have them stay at home.

michael barbaro

So the general approach here in these European countries over the past few weeks is close down most businesses, severely limit people’s movements, but keep schools open, prioritize education above all else?

matina stevis-gridneff

Precisely.

michael barbaro

I’m curious how leaders in these countries are explaining these decisions given how disruptive they are.

matina stevis-gridneff

Leaders have started by really appealing to people and saying —

archived recording (emmanuel macron)

[SPEAKING FRENCH]

matina stevis-gridneff

— I understand your frustration. I know you’re exhausted. President Emmanuel Macron of France, for example, told his people —

archived recording (emmanuel macron)

[SPEAKING FRENCH]

matina stevis-gridneff

— I know this feeling of the day that never ends. So they started by saying we know we’re asking a huge sacrifice off you. And here’s why we ask it. Key messages included how saturated European hospitals were.

archived recording

[SPEAKING FRENCH]

matina stevis-gridneff

Here in Belgium, for example, the government made it very clear that it was so stretched that patients had to be sent to Germany for care.

archived recording

[SPEAKING FRENCH]

matina stevis-gridneff

It was so stretched that in some cities in Belgium nurses were asked to go work if they had Covid and didn’t have symptoms. So that honesty and transparency about how dire the situation was, was really fundamental to that message. Beyond that, has been this appeal to unity, to societal cohesion, that we’re in this together, and we have to pull through together. And in some countries, this message has gone out in pretty creative ways. So for example, the German government, which isn’t famous for its sense of humor, released last week a reel or an ad —

archived recording

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

matina stevis-gridneff

— of this very old man being interviewed and talking about the great battle of his generation.

archived recording

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

matina stevis-gridneff

Only —

archived recording

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

matina stevis-gridneff

— to then go on to say that what was required of us was to stay home and order in and watch TV and not go out. And that was the battle of our generation.

archived recording

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

michael barbaro

I’m also struck by what you seem to be describing as a kind of coordinated message across different countries. Is that right?

matina stevis-gridneff

I think that’s definitely true. We’ve largely seen similar messages, and actually similar policies across the European Union. And I think the reason for that is that there is a shared sense of reality. Of course, there are political and even social disagreements about what the best course of action is. That’s the case everywhere. I don’t want to make it out like there this perfect consensus in Europe. But the proximity of these countries means that they are able to look at each other, learn from each other, and ultimately, the situation in one country over one border will affect what happens to its next door neighbor. And there’s a real sense of joint fates in that.

michael barbaro

Right, so what’s good for one country is no doubt good for its neighboring country or two countries over?

matina stevis-gridneff

Precisely. And conversely, if your country is doing so much worse than your neighbor, you’re going to be asking questions about why that is. You’re going to be looking over that border to your neighbor and holding your government to account and saying, well, hey, here in Belgium, we have really bad outcomes. But over the border in the Netherlands, things seem to be so much better. Why? So the ability to compare and exchange notes has sort of created this positive reinforcement mechanism that the hope is, will help all European countries out of the second wave and hopefully, the last wave of the coronavirus.

michael barbaro

Matina, from what you’re describing, this sounds like a continent that is largely accepting this second wave of lockdowns. Do I have that right? And if so, I wonder why you think that is beyond the kind of collective understanding that you’ve described.

matina stevis-gridneff

I think people are definitely tired. They’re definitely angry in some cases. They feel perhaps that lessons should have been learned by their government from their first wave to avert or avoid the second lockdown. But by and large, despite some dissent and certainly despite some groups that see this as either a conspiracy or an assault on their liberties, I think if you take a few steps back, what I see is quite broad societal acceptance of these measures. Remember also, this is Europe. The governments are in people’s business, and there is an expectation that they should be. So an active role from the state in managing the outbreak is expected. And people don’t find those interventions as alien or unusual. It’s just part of the political and civic culture on the continent. And there is another thing, which is perhaps a little more material. European governments, even those that don’t have a lot of financial means, have shown a fairly humane approach to the citizens that are suffering financially from this crisis by extending support through an array of measures that are costing them billions and billions of euros. So let’s start with Germany, which is the biggest, the richest, and the most generous country in Europe in its response to the financial fallout. You know, suspending tax payments, suspending social security payments, paying businesses to keep their people onboard and just put them on furlough by covering most or all of their salaries, instead of letting them go. But they even paid out checks to freelance artists —

michael barbaro

Wow.

matina stevis-gridneff

— which no other government really has done. So if you were a freelance artist in Berlin — and of course, you know, there were no exhibitions. You were not be able to make a living — you registered with the government and within a week, you got a 5,000 Euro check in the post, which isn’t a lot. But it showed the willingness of the government to support people that frankly, in the past, in other crises have not really been seen by governments, such as freelance artists, for example. And even in smaller and poorer European countries that have much less flexibility in their budgets to be doing this sort of thing, efforts have been made to support people struggling. So for example, my parents live in Greece. And Greece doesn’t have the most fantastic finances, as a lot of people know. But still, my parents got effectively a tax rebate, which was a real game changer for their financial planning for the rest of the year. And on top of that, the European Union is rallying to get together a landmark stimulus package that will be distributed across its 27 members over and above national stimulus packages in the new year. And so financial assistance keeps coming in various forms. Of course, it can’t last forever. And it will certainly strain the finances of these governments in the long run. But I do think that this is a key reason why, even in these very strange times for relations between citizens and governments, the rapport has kept going. And people have continued feeling connected to their governments, because it’s a two-way street. They don’t just feel like their governments are telling them what to do and more importantly, what not to do, or that their governments are just putting in place measures that are taking away their livelihoods. They feel that they’re also getting something back.

michael barbaro

So most important question of all, Matina, is this second lockdown working? Is it starting to flatten the curve?

matina stevis-gridneff

Well, Michael, the first thing I’m going to do is tell you what’s happening in Belgium by looking on my Coronalert app, which —

michael barbaro

Of course.

matina stevis-gridneff

— informs me that this week we’ve had 47 percent fewer cases than last week and 24 percent fewer hospitalizations, which means that here in Belgium, we’re turning the corner. Similarly, other countries that implemented lockdowns around the same time as Belgium are doing better. The Czech Republic, once the worst infection rate in Europe, also shows similar promising signs. Finland, Ireland, similar trends. And there is every reason to believe that bigger countries, such as Germany or France are just behind us. They implemented their lockdowns a little later. They have their own conditions to contend with at home. But their rate of infection is already slowing down. And so the feeling is that the measures are working, which means that they are actually being applied as well.

michael barbaro

Right, which means that people are likely to keep following them, because there’s an immediate reward for abiding by these rules.

matina stevis-gridneff

Precisely, you can see that things are getting better. And remember, there’s always the promise of a semi-normal holiday season at the end of the year. And that’s, I think something that’s keeping people going, a hope that perhaps there can be small celebrations of the holidays, although governments are cautioning and trying to convince everyone to stay put and stay away from elderly relatives. But there is a feeling that if we get this under control by mid-December, then we may, we just may be able to have a holiday season of sorts.

michael barbaro

Well, Matina, stay safe. And thank you for your time.

matina stevis-gridneff

Thanks so much, Michael.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

So, Mitch, you’re a national correspondent at The Times based in the Midwest, the region that is now being hit the hardest in the US by the virus. We just spoke to our colleague, Matina, about how Europe is responding to its second wave. And it’s a story of coordination and communication. So let’s talk about how that compares with what the governments in the Midwest are doing right now.

mitch smith

Yeah, well, it looks very, very different here. But you are right. The Midwest is in really rough dire shape. And it has been for some time. Case numbers just continue to explode. 13 of the 14 metro areas in the country with the highest rates of recent cases are in the Midwest. Six of the seven states in the country with the highest rates of recent cases, in the Midwest. It’s rising pretty much everywhere in the region. You have governors talking about hospital capacity concerns and really approaching — using language that we just haven’t seen before.

archived recording

The nation has been swept by a Covid storm that has taken Illinois’ positivity rate from low single digits to the mid-teens. And with nearly no mitigations in the states bordering us and no national strategy to reduce the spread, we’re in for a very difficult next few months.

mitch smith

But — but even still, the restrictions are generally much looser than what you’re seeing overseas. And they vary a lot from state to state, from county to county. It just looks a lot different.

michael barbaro

So tell me about these restrictions.

mitch smith

Sure, let me start with the least amount of restrictions. And that would be South Dakota. That’s a state where there is no mask mandate. There is no stay-at-home order. There has not been. And even though cases are extremely high there, as they are in much of the region, there does not seem to be any movement toward that.

archived recording (kristi noem)

And I want to remind you all of this. Because while we were working together and we were preparing as a state, many other states were taking a very different approach. Some ordered their citizens to shelter in place, ordered their businesses to lockdown, and ordered their churches to close.

mitch smith

Governor Kristi Noem, she’s a Republican, and she’s been really outspoken for months now about letting people make their own choices.

archived recording (kristi noem)

And day after day, night after night, they insisted that every single decision I was making was wrong, that I was foolish to trust my people. And I was even sillier to respect the oaths that I took. They told me I should shut my state down.

mitch smith

And she’s acted accordingly and has not imposed the sorts of things we’ve seen some of her peers go for. She’s even had —

archived recording (kristi noem)

South Dakota, the land of the free.

mitch smith

—commercials on Fox News encouraging people to visit her state at some point.

archived recording (kristi noem)

We’re a place to safely explore.

michael barbaro

Ha, during this pandemic?

mitch smith

That’s when the commercials aired, yep.

archived recording (kristi noem)

We’re open for opportunity and always will be. I’m Governor Kristi Noem. Celebrate what makes America great.

michael barbaro

Are there any restrictions in South Dakota of any kind as the second wave moves in?

mitch smith

Statewide, not really. Sioux Falls, the largest city in the state, last week, considered a mask mandate and that failed. Sioux Falls has the eighth most cases per capita in recent weeks of any metro area in the country.

michael barbaro

So, Mitch, if we’re going from least restrictive to more restrictive, what state is next?

mitch smith

So next, I’d go to Ohio, which is a state where the Republican Governor, Mike DeWine, has been outspoken for many months about just how severe this is. That’s a state that’s had a mask mandate now, that’s had some restrictions in place on businesses, that’s been trying to kind of thread that needle. They’ve pointed to small gatherings as the real center of transmission in that state.

archived recording (mike dewine)

We’ll be issuing a new order in the next few days that will place significant new restrictions on these social activities.

mitch smith

And so for instance, they issued new guidance about wedding receptions. And so guests must be seated all the time—

archived recording (mike dewine)

The order also requires everyone to be seated, everyone to wear a mask, unless they are actively consuming food or drinks.

mitch smith

But you can still have a first dance. So not everybody can dance, but you can still have the first dance. You can toss the bouquet, that’s fine. You can cut the cake, but no buffets. And so trying to find some balance and to — and to not completely closed down, while regulating dancing at wedding receptions. That’s kind of where you are in a place like Ohio.

michael barbaro

But this is news to me. You can still hold an indoor wedding in the state of Ohio?

mitch smith

That is correct.

michael barbaro

OK, so what is the most restrictive Midwestern State at this point in the second wave?

mitch smith

Sure, well, Michigan would be the state that has gone the furthest this time. It’s a state with a Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, a Republican-controlled state legislature, and if you’ve paid attention at all to the election this year, a very divided citizenry. This is a place where there’s wide differences and schools of thought on how to approach this. And over the weekend, Governor Whitmer came out and told high schools and colleges that they would have to close.

archived recording (gretchen whitmer)

We are at the precipice, and we need to take some action. Because as the weather gets colder and people spend more time indoors, this virus will spread. More people will get sick, and there will be more fatalities.

mitch smith

She said that bars and restaurants can’t be open for indoor dining anymore. Casinos, movie theaters, group exercise classes, all shutting down. It’s not a lockdown, but it’s as close as anywhere in the Midwest has come since spring.

archived recording (gretchen whitmer)

Our response is strongest if we are unified and all in this together.

mitch smith

On the right you have serious criticism of the governor for closing down businesses, for closing down schools. You had the state Republican chairman saying she’s showing contempt for the people’s elected representatives by not going through the Republican-controlled legislature to implement these rules. You have at least one state lawmaker saying she should be impeached.

michael barbaro

Wow.

mitch smith

I mean, that’s how divergent the views are on these issues.

michael barbaro

And, Mitch, we know that there has been an economic health versus public health debate that has defined this divide in the country pretty much since the beginning of the pandemic. But what’s the story of the resistance in the Midwest to these measures right now, given the profound levels of infection there?

mitch smith

Well, I think it’s a real mix of things. And these are states that are not monolithic. But I think some of it’s rooted in that some states that went much further in the spring didn’t ever have that many cases. And so perhaps that’s a sign that things worked. I think in some corners, that’s seen as a sign that they lost their livelihood or lost their business when maybe they didn’t need to. I think you also have, in some parts of the region, genuine skepticism of government, a libertarian streak, an independent tradition in many of these states and not necessarily a lot of trust in the government to look out for people like them, to see it through so that when this is over, they come out OK on the other side. Finally, you’ve got to look too, to see how the federal messaging has been frankly, inconsistent with what some of these governors are saying. You have a president who many people in this region admire, voted for, trust, who has had really mixed messages on how to handle this. And I think you continue to see that playing out. And just on Sunday, for instance, when Governor Whitmer comes out with new restrictions and almost immediately, Dr. Scott Atlas, the president’s coronavirus advisor, goes on Twitter to criticize her. He says the only way this stops is if people rise up. You get what you accept. So there’s the tension, a real dissonance at time between different leaders’ messages, between state and federal. And if you’re a person in Michigan, you’re being told one thing by your state leader and another thing from the White House.

michael barbaro

Right. So if we go back to Europe for a moment, Mitch — and I know that you are quite far away from Europe — what Matina told us was the reason why things seem to be working in Europe, why there’s so much buy in, is because there is a history of the government playing this role in people’s lives — that is not what you are describing in the Midwest — there is a uniform message from government leaders at multiple levels — again, we totally lack that here, as you just explained — and finally, there is substantial federal financial assistance, which of course, we haven’t had in the US, because there hasn’t been a major federal stimulus package for months now.

mitch smith

That’s right. That’s important context to understanding how this is being received. There’s a lot of genuine understandable fear about what the future holds if we have to hunker down again.

michael barbaro

Mitch, is there a version where this patchwork approach can somehow work, that it can flatten the curve?

mitch smith

Well, I think we sure hope so. I think that you’re also seeing some signs that people are taking this more seriously. I talked to the mayor of Sioux City, Iowa not long ago, a place that has among the most cases total per capita in the country over the whole pandemic. He was at an event. He said almost everyone was wearing a mask. And even a few weeks before, that wouldn’t have been the case. And he pointed to the governor of Iowa coming out and saying, you have to wear masks if you’re going to an event. And so I think that one thing that matters here is that some of these leaders that have held off a long time in imposing restrictions that have frustrated, particularly some liberals about how they’ve approached this is that when people in those states see them going on TV with deep concern in their voice saying, listen, the hospitals are filling up and we’ve got to do something, I think there’s a real hope that people, even if it’s not spelled out to the letter in some executive order, take action and try to help themselves and help their community. Because I think this is a region where people care a lot about other people. This is a region where people care a lot about their towns, about their neighbors. And so I think as you see this escalate, as you see the concern grow in the faces and the voices of the people they elect — that the sincere hope is that it starts to have an impact. And at the very least, that we can preserve hospital capacity and that people who do get sick can get the best treatment available and have a fighting shot.

michael barbaro

It sounds like what you’re saying is that the scenario here that leads to the curve being flattened might be that things get so bad that people in the Midwest listen to their government officials, not because they’re required to, but because at a certain point, it’ll just seem like there’s no other choice.

mitch smith

I fear that may be true. You continue to see case numbers rise across the Midwest. I look every day, looking for some glimmer that a state’s peaking, a state’s leveling off, that there’s — that there’s progress coming. But so far, it just looks really bleak. And it’s really tragic.

michael barbaro

Well, Mitch, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

mitch smith

Thanks, Michael.

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michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. A week after a similar announcement from Pfizer, the drugmaker, Moderna, said that its coronavirus vaccine was 94.5 percent effective in a large clinical trial. Both Moderna and Pfizer plan to quickly apply for emergency authorization from the US government to begin vaccinating the public. But a vaccine that is widely available is still likely months away. And The Times reports that President Trump is expected to order the withdrawal of thousands of American troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia by the time he leaves office, using his final weeks to pull back as many troops as possible across the world. But the plan is running into resistance from Trump’s own national security advisors, who are warning him that a rapid drawdown could have catastrophic consequences within each of those countries.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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