Europe's Virus Carnage Has Italy and Spain Grasping for Answers


(Bloomberg) --

Italy's coronavirus death toll topped 10,000 and Spain reported its deadliest day yet, leaving leaders of both countries groping for ways to tackle the crisis with Europe split along economic fault lines.

While the data suggest the pace of infections may be leveling off, the human carnage and economic damage aren't letting up. Spain recorded 832 deaths on Saturday, though Italy's fatal cases slowed to 889 from a Friday record of 969.

With the goal of "flattening the curve" at stake, Italy's Giuseppe Conte and Spain's Pedro Sanchez took to the national airwaves with comments that raised the level of unease.

Conte stopped short of an expected extension of Italy's nationwide lockdown, a step that seems unavoidable given the suffering. Sanchez muddied the waters by saying non-essential workers would be kept home over the Easter period, sowing doubt on what kind of lockdown Spain has been in for two weeks.

Instead, both leaders amped up their criticism of the European Union for being slow and failing its hardest-hit members in the hour of their greatest economic need. Both were at pains to remind the EU of its responsibilities.

"Look, we have an appointment with history and everyone must rise to the occasion," Conte said at a news conference. His proposal to the EU, specifically for the issuance of so-called corona bonds, was met with German and Dutch opposition. In an interview with Il Sole 24 Ore, he openly questioned the "raison d'etre" of the bloc if it cannot handle this crisis appropriately.

Sanchez repeated his call for a European "Marshall Plan," a reference to the U.S. aid program credited with pulling Western Europe out of its post-World War II economic devastation.

'European Solidarity'

Almost 15,000 coronavirus victims - more than half the world's total - have been reported in Italy and Spain, which officially are in almost total lockdown except for essential errands such as buying food and medicine.

While Italian Deputy Finance Minister Laura Castelli told La Stampa that the government's crisis aid package could increase to as much as 100 billion euros ($111 billion), that compares with 750 billion euros mobilized by Germany and 300 billion euros in France.

Conte and Sanchez joined French President Emmanuel Macron in advocating a hefty joint EU response, exposing an EU rift dating back to the euro-area debt crisis.

"We won't overcome this crisis without strong European solidarity, both on the health front and on the budget front," Macron said in an interview with Italian newspapers. "The amount is secondary. It's the signal that matters, be it via joint debt or a common budget."

Such proposals fly in the face of German-led resistance after Chancellor Angela Merkel said this week she prefers to deploy the European Stability Mechanism, a rescue fund set up during the debt crisis.

Shortage Threat

Sanchez didn't spell out what is new about his latest containment policy, saying only that the measures "are of an extraordinary toughness" and require "social behavior very different" from what Spaniards are used to.

French officials, already facing criticism for a lack of protective gear for health workers, warned of possible shortages of medication and coronavirus test equipment. Paper and clothing manufacturers are being asked to make face masks since France produces only about a fifth of the amount it needs, Health Minister Olivier Veran told reporters Saturday.

"The whole world is facing shortages and demand for intensive care equipment is exploding," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said.

As countries such as the U.S. deploy extraordinary restrictions to fight the spread of the virus, the question for Europe's leaders is how to hold the line.

There are suggestions in Spain and Italy that containment measures are working as the pace of infections stabilizes.

"The number of deaths, very high even today, reasonably refers to people who contracted the infection at least 10 or 15 days ago," Lorenzo Pregliasco, co-founder of Italian pollster YouTrend, said in an interview.

Johnson's Appeal

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who's under quarantine at his Downing Street apartment after testing positive for the virus, is writing to U.K. households to urge people to save lives by staying home. The mail drop next week will include a leaflet of medical advice.

"We know things will get worse before they get better," the letter says, according to his office. "But we are making the right preparations, and the more we all follow the rules, the fewer lives will be lost and the sooner life can return to normal."

It's the latest test of Johnson's approach to the crisis, which delayed restrictions on public life and kept schools open. Now, London's Excel convention center is being converted into a hospital and new treatment hubs are planned for Birmingham and Manchester.

In Spain, Madrid set up a temporary hospital in the capital's main conference center and is using an ice rink as a temporary morgue. Police began patrolling outside supermarkets in Palermo, Sicily, after a store was raided by people who refused to pay for their shopping.

Germany is unlikely to see an easing of restrictions before April 20 as cases in Europe's biggest economy are doubling every 5 1/2 days, Merkel said in her weekly podcast.

"The number of new infections doesn't give reason to ease the rules," she said.

(Updates with letter to U.K. households in 19th paragraph.)

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