Germany shut down its borders with France, Denmark, Austria and Luxembourg in an effort to curb the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic at home. Spain and other European Union countries are doing the same. The closure of the Schengen border raises more barriers to individual movements within the EU.
Closing the borders is an impulsive response to the crisis. It is perhaps understandable in an emergency, when national governments are responsible for protecting the population, in the absence of a common health policy in Europe. But it promotes an inward-looking attitude that does not facilitate the coordination of actions across Europe to more effectively mitigate the impact of Covid-19.
The situation requires solidarity, not selfishness. A great number of patients need urgent care and more will definitely be in need of such care in the coming weeks. But beds in intensive care units (ICUs) are in short supply in many EU countries. The Italian healthcare system is already crumbling, with other countries likely to follow suit. Spain and France are particularly at risk.
However, some EU countries are well equipped in terms of ICU beds as a percentage of their population. Among the Schengen countries, Germany has around 29 ICU beds per 100,000 inhabitants, Austria 22, and Belgium 16. But other countries are lagging behind. In Italy and France there are about 12.5 ICU beds per 100,000 inhabitants, in Spain 10, and in Greece only six. This means that Germany has about 25,000 ICU beds, while France and Italy have about 8,000 each. Together, Schengen countries France, Italy and Spain have fewer ICU beds than Germany.
Instead of inward-looking attitudes and the closure of internal borders, collective action against Covid-19 would be more helpful, with the 27 EU member-states – or at least the Schengen countries – treated as a single affected area. The pooling of ICU beds in the Schengen area (or, better, in the whole EU) could potentially save lives by relieving pressure, to the extent possible, on the healthcare systems of the most affected countries.
For example, in Alsace, the worst affected area in France, ICUs are saturated. The government is scrambling to set up a field hospital near Mulhouse to provide some additional beds, while at the same time trying to decongest local hospitals by transferring patients in less affected areas of the country. The Morphee units of the French Army, for the air transportation of critically ill patients, have been deployed for this purpose.
However, what France is doing could be implemented at a European level, at least in the Schengen area, with the aim of making the most effective use of the available member-states’ ICUs. Patients from Mulhouse could, for example, be transferred to neighboring Germany, instead of building a field hospital or transporting them elsewhere in France. Note that Freiburg (where the great novelist Nikos Kazantzakis died in 1957) is only about 60 kilometers from Mulhouse… The same could apply to troubled Italy, Spain, and elsewhere.
Shutting down internal borders in the EU clearly does not help collective action and the efficient management of health infrastructure in response to the pandemic. It will do exactly the opposite, exerting pressure on national healthcare systems and raising the cost in human lives. It is also likely to seriously damage any remaining hope for deeper European integration in the future.
Aristomene Varoudakis is professor of economics at the University of Strasbourg and a former official of the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.