The CORONAVIRUS COVID-19 epidemic has found us unprepared and let us realize how vulnerable we are as individuals and the same for all systems of our society. The realization that the quality of life we live in the European Union is not simply granted, but above all it is not constant, although we all expect it and simply do not want to believe that there are huge challenges around us – from climate change to food shortages – …. and vices are deeply rooted in our consciousness and subconscious.
When the WHO declared an epidemic of COVID-19, EU Member States began to take action one after another to limit the spread of the virus. For the first time in history, the EU institutions and the governments of the Member States decided to end public life completely and use lockdown as a preventive policy to stop and manage the virus. Closed borders, airports, cultural and sporting events, schools, universities — public life has literals stopped. We stayed in our homes.
How is my family?
The closure of borders within Schengen begins at the end of March. I am calling a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for help for the possible return of my older daughter, who lives with her husband in Amsterdam, to Slovenia. I get advice which trains are still possible to use for a few days, but unfortunately my daughter has to stay in the Netherlands due to work obligations. This is a new difficult moment, the Easter holidays are approaching and it is clear that like many other families, we will not be able to celebrate together. Fortunately, the younger daughter and her family moved from the city to our pre-Alpine village in time, where together with their four-year-old granddaughter we cultivate the land, take care of animals and have walks among meadows and forests. Alone. Without any meeting, socializing and visiting. One of us goes to the store every few weeks, which is nothing special for everyday life in the village. From here, shops are less frequently visited. Baking bread and stocks stored from autumn crops in the cellar and in the freezer are quite sufficient. On Sundays and holidays we wear festive clothes, together we prepare home grown food, we tried even more that Sunday’s meal is beautiful and reflects celebration of being together. But we are aware that many people live in much more difficult circumstances during this period especially those who doesn’t have access to the nature.
At the very beginning of quarantine, it is difficult to turn all established habits upside down, to come to terms with restricted movement and, above all, uncertainty.
Over time, we get used to new conditions and look for the beauties and positive qualities that quarantine brings. Home and family gain a central role in life, several times a day we come to the table together and talk without external pressures and time constraints, teleworking has been our way of working already before and does not pose any problems for us who live in the countryside. The air is cleaner, no more constant noise from the planes above us, the environment around us is now completely quiet. The sun, clear sky and night starry sky is our theatre for now. My granddaughter and I are learning to draw together, which is a very relaxing way to spend time together, to learn together and to help to forget about the health threat of COVID-19. She also has an online English language course and even an online dance course. The weekly international yoga course is conducted by the daughter via the ZOOM video conferencing system. Our family is actively working together with participants from Europe and the United States. The world is so small! Sometimes I listen to the training my daughter has on line on the complexity of the individual and all the systems in the world. It is mainly about preparing for a different kind of world that we will have after COVID-19.
QUARANTINE – A LOOK INTO THE PAST PERIOD OF THE EPIDEMIC
As a former Member of the European Parliament (EP), I was appointed by the EP Presidency to the Management Board of the European Center for Communicable Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) Stockholm.
On 3 February 2020, the EPV ENVI (Committee on the Environment, Health and Food) presented an annual presentation of the results of ECDC’s work, focusing on reporting on the new Coronavirus, which has been designated COVID-19. My intervention in the Committee was on the topic of lack of communication with EU citizens. I continuously worked on the topics that EU citizens should know more about the benefits of this European institution before epidemics occur. People should also get closer in languages they understand, not only in English, this is especially true for the elderly who have not had the opportunity to learn foreign languages. Persuasive and comprehensible communication could be a powerful force against false information and at the same time help people feel safe in the event of an epidemic. Building trust in the EU institutions is more necessary than ever in history.
COVID-19, which was still largely confined to China and Wuhan Province was a real challenge at the time for EU institutions. Slowly, information came about the first infections in France, Italy, Spain…. I felt responsible and at the same time helpless what I could do in this function before the coming health threat. There were emails and calls from different parts of the world on how to protect yourself from infection. Many unknowns remained, and no one was ready for a pandemic of that size since there wasn’t any comparable situation in the last generations. I wrote to ECDC and kept sending questions and also got quick enough answers. I wrote to the Director of the ECDC and suggested that she involve us as members of the Management Board in constant information on how to prevent the spread of the virus and on the safety of people from infection.
With all responsibility for the health threat of the virus, I activated all my online channels with content related to the knowledge of the current situation regarding COVID-19
tw @ zofijamazej March 7th, 2020 : “Unfortunately, the virus knows no boundaries. The number of infected people in Italy is growing tremendously. ”At that time, the number of infected people in Europe was 7,541, of which more than 4,000 in our neighbor northern Italy, and 213 dead. Most countries have not yet reacted, among other things, the Slovenian Government has remained completely calm. I wrote the same day; tw @ zofijamazej “I’ve been advertising Coronavirus with data and arguments for a long time, but the ruling system’s immune system was impermeable.”
March 8th, 2020: The number of infected in Europe rose to 9161.
tw @ zofijamazej; “On today’s Women’s Day, I would like to thank the nurses and doctors across Europe who are fighting the Coronavirus and selflessly helping others.” At that time, there was neither enough protective equipment nor for medical staff.
Meanwhile, warnings and guidelines from the ECDC have spread that what is happening in Italy may be happening in other countries as well. The head of the section for epidemiological research at the ECDC, publicly warned that countries should follow their own pandemic preparedness plans, which each country must have in constant readiness. Guidelines from the ECDC came to protect healthcare professionals treating the infected and about the necessary protective equipment, as well as advice on how to follow the virus. The key focus was on prevention and preparedness to control the spread of the virus.
March 10th, 2020: The EPP Group called for increased coordination between EU Member States and between the European institutions when it comes to Coronavirus.
Despite the outbreak of infections in northern Italy, Slovenia waited without measures and protective equipment until the day before the inauguration of the Janez Janša Government, which began its term on 13 March 2020. What followed was a moment of truth with regard to the health threat, it was about people’s lives.
Initial emergency measures have been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. The path to the unknown began: fear of infection, isolation from the world, social contacts only through digital channels, cancellation of all planned activities.
I posted a post on the website www. zofijamazejkukovic.net / Coronavirus is changing our habits and at the same time prepared a video clip with this content for the Association of Former MEPs in Brussels. I called and wrote again to ECDC and asked them to organize a video conference with the epidemic crisis team from the Government of the Republic of Slovenia. The response was excellent.
March 17th, 2020: We had a video conference between the leading European ECDC experts for COVID-19 and the Crisis Staff in Ljubljana, and I joined from my village Bele Vode. All the questions asked by the Slovenian side regarding testing, preparation of hospitals, isolation and treatment of the infected, protection of healthcare workers, methods of modeling and capacity planning were answered in concrete terms. ECDC also offered a hand for possible further needs, especially in modeling and capacity planning. For me, holding this meeting was a relief that I was able to do something very needed to protect the people in our homeland as Vice Chair of the ECDC Management Board.
From March 18th, 2020 I continued to receive comprehensive weekly reports, an epidemiological picture in all EU countries, guidelines, a risk assessment and answers to the most common questions. I spread them electronically in the EP, to the Association of Former MEPs in Brussels, to Prof. Bojana Beović, who professionally covered the field of COVID-19 for the Government of the Republic of Slovenia and for doctors and health professionals. I made a special effort to spread this information to individuals who considered the virus to be something fictional. However, the number of deaths did not change their minds. Dissemination of ECDC information via social media is unfortunately useless for those who do not speak English, which is more pronounced in the older generation.
I would like to emphasize that, regardless of the seat of the European ECDC institution, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden, the ECDC does not comment any country in particular, not even Sweden, what measures it will take to limit the expansion of COVID-19. It makes recommendations, and it is up to the Member States to what extent they implement them. The ECDC also does not comment on the actions of individual countries, as this is not within the competence of this agency.
In March, I also had intensive preparations for the 48th meeting of the ECDC Management Board, which was scheduled for March 26 and 27, due to new circumstances – at a distance instead of in Stockholm. Three days before the meeting on the evening of March 23, 2020, I was notified that the meeting would be canceled during this period because members from individual countries were so busy that they were unable to attend the meeting. That same evening, I wrote an e-mail to all members from the 27 EU Member States and representatives of the European Commission and the EP, asking them to take the time for such an important meeting, despite the busy schedule of all those involved in the first line of COVID-19 virus control. The next day the meeting was confirmed and attendance was almost complete. At the meeting, in addition to all the mandatory topics on business results and planning the work of ECDC, we devoted a large part of our time to managing the spread of COVID-19. Representatives of all countries highlighted their experiences and the greatest ambiguities and expressed their gratitude and satisfaction for the support they have the opportunity to receive from the ECDC. At the same time, they expressed expectations of professional help. My initiative was towards the use of artificial intelligence in limiting and recognizing the COVID-19 virus. During this period, the epidemiological picture was very diverse; Italy, France, Spain and England faced the most infections, while Eastern and Central European countries, including Slovenia, had fewer infections and fewer deaths. The conclusion was in the direction of the definition of comprehensive weekly data and guidelines by the ECDC to the Member States, including England, which is treated separately after Brexit. ECDC representatives provided assurances of readiness to respond quickly to future needs of members.
March 31st, 2020: There were 386.282 people infected and 26.110 deaths in the EU / EEA / UK. The measures taken by the countries to limit the spread of COVID-19 ranged from the complete closure of all institutions, cultural and educational institutions, churches, airports, some companies, non-essential goods stores, restaurants… to more open ones as practiced by Sweden.
Two months later, on May 31st, 2020 however, there were 1.398.425 infected and 164.766 fatalities.
Meanwhile, the virus has already reached its peak in most countries and the number of infected people is declining per day.
Brussels – Association of Former Members of the European Parliament
My work as an elected member of the Management Board of the Association of Former MEPs in Brussels (FMA MB) is aimed at launching social media with a focus on the new, citizen-friendly website www.formermember.europarl.eu , twitter and Facebook and on informing about epidemiological picture of COVID-19 in Europe.
April 1st, 2020: The first meeting of the Remote Management Board is held, chaired by Dr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, former President of the EP. We define the temporary transformation of our performance from physical presence to teleworking. Based on ECDC analysis and guidelines, I presented the state of infection in Europe. It was not yet clear at this time when the virus would reach its peak of infection. Nevertheless, we canceled quite a few important activities, including the visit of the FMA delegation to Zagreb, because Croatia held the presidency of the EU Council. The transformation of our operations has also changed the Campus program, where, as former MEPs, we lecture at universities on European values and policies. From here, these lectures are only at a distance. Zoom and Webex have become our new reality. We are preparing motivational video clips for our EU citizens to stay at home, how to take care of themselves and everyone else. Secretariat staff move from the EP premises to work from home, in accordance with the instructions of the EP President. I reported information from ECDC to FMA social media on a daily basis. The European Parliament, as the heart of democracy, had to close its doors for the first time in history to prevent the virus from spreading. However, the epidemic unites us in the desire for solidarity between the peoples of Europe, because the virus knows no borders. In the FMA’s governing bodies and in the media, I advocate the usefulness of our own European Center for the Control and Prevention of Infectious Diseases, ECDC, which many are unaware of and exists to play a significant role in protecting Europe’s citizens.
What did we learn from the epidemic?
The most personal and memorable experience is living in quarantine. Stay home – stay home – stay home, cancel all scheduled activities and appointments from your calendar, have a basic supply of food… Quarantine also brought unforgettable beautiful pages; the home became more intimate again, the family became more connected, the need to buy non-essential things was gone, wild animals appeared again, we perfected cooking skills, read books, had friendly conversations over the phone, replaced travel to meetings with videoconferencing from their own home or from a backyard surrounded by a flowering meadows.
What have we learned at the institutional level?
Improving the preparedness of health systems in the event of an epidemic must become one of our priorities. COVID-19 remains a health threat and we do not know when and where it will reappear. We need human resources, stocks of protective equipment primarily for healthcare professionals, the capacity of isolated wards in hospitals and associated medical equipment such as respirators.
The European institutions, and in particular the European Agency for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC), need to improve the way we communicate with EU citizens even when there is no epidemic. Citizens need to be aware of what and how their protection is taken care of in the event of a health crisis and to be aware of the importance of our community and solidarity between countries.
When it comes to lives saved, timely identification of the health crisis and action by EU institutions and governments in the Member States is crucial. Delay in action and political populism are dangerous opponents of public health in an epidemic situation.
Continuing education and psychological preparation for the epidemic of all who are in the first line of prevention; primarily health workers and all service services for the basic supply of the population, for the maintenance of systems such as food logistics, telecommunications, energy …
The time of the epidemic has taught us a leap into the digital society. Distance work, on line meetings, telemedicine, distance learning, connecting with friends at a distance … Older people need continuous education in the use of digital technologies, because this knowledge is not granted, as it is with younger generations. In the EU, most older people live alone and are therefore even more dependent on useful skills to communicate remotely when it comes to ordering food delivery, consulting a doctor or talking to those they love.
The COVID-19 epidemic also caused an initial shock in food supply, which further affected the anxiety of people in quarantine. We need to increase self-sufficiency in food in the EU, and I also wrote a book about this entitled Start Up Europe. Shorten and locally managed supply chains also in the event of a future epidemic and develop the European internal market and solidarity. Special attention should be paid to vulnerable groups.
Reduced consumption as a result of the health crisis is leading to an increase in unemployment and at the same time relieving the environment of pollution. How to spend less, how to tackle unemployment and have a quality of life while changing our habits — is a key question.
Addressing the vulnerability of small and medium-sized enterprises to possible interruptions due to the epidemic for several months through an appropriate tax policy, encouraging renovation and managing new technologies and motivating employees.
At the end of the epidemic and the transition to a new normal, communication with citizens about how to adapt our life habits to the time marked by the health threat of a new wave of epidemics is essential. On a personal level, however, we need to realize what is important and what is less important. This will make it easier for us to deal with a new epidemic and the economic and social crisis.
Is the second wave already here?
In the last summer days of August 2020, COVID-19 is again in an extraordinary increase in the number of infected. More than 2 million infected in the EU / EEA / UK, the death toll is approaching 200,000. Holiday months, vacations, mass indoor parties are taking their toll. More and more countries are getting labeled as red zones, which means a very dangerous area of COVID-19 infection. Testing is extensive in most countries, and contact tracking still divides policy decisions. Citizens are concerned about the protection of private data, but tracking is currently the only way to track the virus en masse and prevent further infections. The sky is still more starry at night than before the pandemic, the noise of a small number of flights has decreased, architects are already innovating in the design of homes to make them suitable for homework, schoolchildren and students are uncertainly waiting for the start of school and academic year. Digitalization of jobs and work at home causes less traffic and noise, especially on city entrances, but also shows a surplus of labor, there is uncertainty in the air. However, hope is also in the European package of financial assistance to all EU countries, which should help to ” new hope. ”The hope is in intensive testing of the vaccine, which will not be available to everyone in the short term, because capacities are also limited in pharmacy.
The hope is that awareness of all of us to behave responsibly towards ourselves and others is significantly increased so that we can tackle what is coming with solidarity and responsibility.