Coronavirus across Europe: An inside view as countries plot a path back to normal life

AS the coronavirus epidemic continues to claim thousands of lives, how are different countries around Europe plotting a route back to normality? Our journalists and contributors give their latest insights.

Coronavirus across Europe: An inside view as countries plot a path back to normal life
Face masks and a face shield are displayed for sale in Berlin. Photo: AFP

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'Is it too soon? How will social distancing be kept up?' Emma Firth, Copenhagen, Denmark

This week came the news that everyone in lockdown looks forward to – Denmark can start to slowly reopen.

And soon – just two days after Easter.

Its success will lie in everyone’s hands – thoroughly and frequently cleaned ones – and by continuing to follow social distancing instructions and sneezing into our sleeves.

But if figures remain stable over the weekend, all children in nursery (vuggestue) and kindergarten (børnehave) and those up to the age of 12 at school (0-5 klasse) can return to their classes from Wednesday 15th April.

The aim of this, the Prime Minister said, was for parents to be able to work more effectively from home without caring for small children. 

The government is also talking to some private businesses about how employees can start to return to the workplace. Everything else, including Denmark’s borders, will remain closed until May 10th, when they’ll be another review. 

Cheers and celebrations from parents in Denmark you might think. Not quite. Less than four weeks after the sudden, decisive and full lockdown, this news came as quite a surprise for many.

Was it too soon? How would social distancing be kept up? What if many children become ill and the infection spreads?

A Facebook group soon started, called “Mit barn skal ikke være forsøgskanin for Covid19” –  “My child will not be a Covid19 guinea pig.” It currently has over 35,000 members.

But details of how this reopening will work are yet to be announced.

Individual municipalities and institutions are currently deciding how and when they can open safely, before informing parents of the new structure. 

The government has the backing of the health authorities in Denmark and has said the country will close down again if numbers worsen.

The empty boats of the Sightseeing company 'Stromma Canal Tours Copenhagen' lie at the quay in Copenhagen Harbour during the government lockdown. Photo: AFP

But for now, the numbers are stable. Hospital admissions for the coronavirus are decreasing (currently 433), as are those infected patients in intensive care (currently 120). So far there have been 237 reported deaths linked to the coronavirus in Denmark, according to Statens Serum Institute, a figure that is rising but not soaring.

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus is 5,635 but this could be much higher due to not testing everyone. 

The government has said it will take three to four weeks to see the effects of the country’s reopening. Weeks that will be closely watched, not just by Denmark but the rest of the world.

Read more on The Local Denmark


'We're not asking when lockdown will end, just what the next stage will be,' Clare Speak, Bari, southern Italy

It's one month today since national quarantine measures were brought in across Italy. Are they working? From the latest official data, it looks like the shutdown has so far contained the outbreak.

We may be at the end of the beginning at least. But Italy's progress depends on people continuing to follow the rules and, as Italy's health officials keep reminding us, it could easily be undone.

Authorities in the Lombardy area say people are already starting to travel around more, and police expect plenty of rule-breaking this weekend.

There are to be no trips to summer houses, no barbecues with friends, and no big family lunches this Easter. But the long weekend is predicted to be a warm one, and we all know how much Italians value family and tradition. Police think the rising mercury and falling rate of new infections will tempt people to break the rules.

A woman wearing a face mask rides a bicyckle on April 9, 2020 in Treviolo, near Bergamo, Lombardy. Photo: AFP 

We're still not allowed to leave the house without a very good reason and a properly-filled-out form, and it looks like the rules will stay in place for a long time yet.

Instead of asking “When will lockdown end?” the big question everyone's asking now is “What will the next stage of lockdown look like?”

Not much is known for sure yet about the plans for “phase two” of the shutdown, but health experts say this is likely to last months, rather than weeks. 

The government says it may allow some businesses to get back to work, perhaps this month, perhaps next. But there's no question of relaxing the rules on social distancing. 

Despite the serious economic pain caused by the shutdown, Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, has repeatedly warned that it's not the right time to start relaxing measures – the fear is that doing so now could trigger a second wave of contagion.

We're waiting for Conte to announce official plans for the next phase. For now, one thing we can be sure of is that Italy will take its time relaxing the rules. Piano piano – slowly, slowly – we'll reach phase three, which is when the government says we can start returning to normality. Or something like it.

Many people here are now wondering if Italy will ever be quite the same again.

Read more on The Local Italy


'The next stage may well be the biggest challenge yet', Emma Löfgren, Stockholm

It is not over yet, but this week we started seeing a small, flickering light on the horizon. The curve appears to be flattening in Stockholm, the region worst hit in Sweden. It is too early to make any guarantees, but it is a welcome piece of hopeful news in a sea of bad news. 

However, the virus is also spreading in other parts of the country, and in southern Sweden they expect to peak in late May or early June. Some regions, like the island of Gotland – a beautiful oasis in the Baltic Sea, and normally a hotspot for mainland tourists – have seen relatively limited health impact so far, but a heavy economic impact that will hit them hard.

Sweden’s rules are not as restrictive as other countries, but life is far from normal. 

The virus affects all our lives in so many different ways. 

A woman takes photos of the cherry blossoms trees at Kungstradgarden in Stockholm. Photo: AFP

The pensioner who can’t do their grocery shopping for fear of catching the virus; the work permit holder who just lost their job; the daughter who can’t fly home for her mother’s funeral; the parent who doesn’t know whether to keep their child home from school and break Swedish law, or send them to school and feel their heart drop through the floor; the hospital worker who is pulling 12-hour shifts every day; the small child who doesn’t understand why he’s allowed to wave at his grandad through the window but not hug him as he always does; the immigrant worker who knows he’s supposed to stay home from work and self-isolate, but who’s going to pay the rent?

We keep talking and making big plans for what we’re all going to do “once this is over”. But when the spread of the infection is over, the part where we pick up the pieces and try to put them all back together begins. That may very well turn out to be the biggest challenge yet.

Which strategy is the right one? Perhaps we’ll never know.

“The answer isn’t the number of people who die from the coronavirus,” Public Health Agency director Johan Carlson told the DN newspaper last week. “The answer is what we see after four to five years. How does the corona outbreak affect the entire health situation in Sweden?”

That’s a question we’ll be asking for years to come. 

Read more on The Local Sweden

'Just hearing discussions about the end of lockdown helps us imagine a life beyond this,' Emma Pearson, Paris

In France the death toll continues to rise and the lockdown has been extended. And yet, strangely, there is a note of optimism in the air.

I think this stems from two things. Firstly, although the death toll remains high a closer look at the statistics shows some reason for hope – the increase is slowing and the increase in intensive care admissions is also falling.
While no-one is suggesting that the situation is not still extremely serious, these provide some green shoots of hope to go with the beautiful spring days we are seeing through our windows.
The second reason is that – although president Emmanuel Macron has confirmed that lockdown will be extended beyond April 15th – work is now being done on exactly how the lockdown will be loosened.
A commuter walks at the deserted Gare de Lyon train station. Travel is now heavily restricted in France. Photo: AFP
This is of course the challenge for all European countries, and although there is no definite plan in France yet, proposals include relaxing things on a regional basis, on the basis of age or even on employment type.
We know that it won't be soon and it won't be all at once, but even hearing the discussions help us to imagine a life beyond all this.
The other focus is an economic one. France has put together probably the most generous aid package in Europe for people and businesses, which is currently costing the state €20 billion a month.
The government reckons that massive public spending now will help the economy to recover quicker once lockdown ends. Are they right? Well only time will tell, but let's hope so.
I think a focus on these issues has also helped people to see that lockdown will not last forever, giving a much-needed boost to many people in difficult situations.
In fact for many the rules became even stricter this week after a rash of measures from local authorities adding their own rules to the national framework. 
Some of these were responses to legitimate local problems, others felt more like local officials flexing their muscles (although if the Préfet of my département is reading this, then a ban on my neighbours' building work would be very welcome. Merci)
'We are happy to go back to normal, but many feel uneasy', Stine G. Bergo, OIslo, Norway

On Tuesday, nearly a month after we radically changed the way we live, Norwegian Prime minister Erna Solberg said “the measures are working.”

We have things under control, the government promised. From April 20th, schools and nurseries will begin to reopen, and some professions, like psychologists, physiotherapists and hairdressers, will be allowed to go back to work. Things will slowly but steadily get back to normal.

For some, this was the best news they had heard in a very long time. While it should be said that we haven’t been under a strict lockdown like many other countries and are still able to move around outside freely, Norwegians are sick of being stuck at home. Parents are fed up with having to work from home while trying to be their kids’ teachers. People want to go back to work. Get a haircut.

But others were alarmed by the PM’s optimism. We’re drowning in news about how countries around us seem to be falling apart. How could Norway do what no one else could? What were we risking? Was Erna being reckless?

A slope and ski lift unusually empty are pictured in Hemsedal, Norway. Photo: AFP

On the one hand, measures the government has taken to tackle the coronavirus are working. The numbers are looking good. We have passed the peak of the epidemic (at least one of them) and, on average, each infected person contaminates 0.7 others. Hospitals have seen the number of covid-19 patients decrease over the past week.

But, on the same day as the PM’s speech, the Norwegian Institute for Public Health (NIPH) released a risk report that stated that the contamination rate could be kept under control if – and that’s an important if – we continued with the current restrictions. 

In other words: it can get a lot worse. NIPH said the main wave of the virus has not yet hit us.

So while we are happy to slowly go back to normal, many of us are feeling slightly uneasy right now. If there’s one thing that’s certain about the coronavirus, it’s that you never know what’s around the next corner. 

Read more on The Local Norway

'Partying will be off the cards for some time yet,' Rachel Loxton, Berlin, Germany

“Do you have a feeling it’s over?” That was the text message I received from a friend this week as temperatures climbed to over 20C and queues formed outside ice cream shops. 

It’s been nearly three weeks since Chancellor Angela Merkel announced strict social distancing rules for Germany which include keeping a distance of 1.5 metres between people and only meeting with one person in public.

Yet looking at the busy streets, parks and supermarkets, there’s definitely a feeling that suggests Berliners think the worst of the coronavirus epidemic in Germany has passed.

The restrictions are to last until April 19th but there is already talk of Germany’s lockdown exit strategy.

What will life look like? According to a draft government plan there would be widespread testing, contact tracing and isolating, compulsory face masks, as well as social distancing measures allowing businesses and schools to reopen. 

Health Minister Jens Spahn said there would be a “gradual” return to normality – although partying would be off the cards for some time yet. 

On paper this is all positive and the curve is flattening, according to experts.

Various face masks and a face shield are displayed for sale in Berlin. Photo: AFP

But the number of people dying in connection with coronavirus is still going up as the infection takes hold across care homes in Germany. As of Thursday there were around 2,300 confirmed deaths compared to about 1,000 a week ago. 

There were more than 114,000 confirmed coronavirus cases on Thursday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University

Seeing rising numbers – even if the infection rate is slowing – is grim. 

Compared to other countries like Italy, Spain, France and the UK, Germany is in a better position. The lockdown is not as strict here; it’s still okay to go out and get fresh air. We’re even allowed to sit on a bench.  

It sounds cheesy but you do become grateful for simple things, like being able to pick up a coffee or croissant from the bakery. 

Last Saturday I cycled around the quiet streets of central Berlin, passing the Brandenburg Gate, before stopping off to grab a halloumi kebab to take home.

It’s such a small insignificant thing in the scheme of things but in corona times it felt amazing having the freedom to do that. 

Merkel made another appeal on Thursday saying: “We must remain focused – the situation is fragile.”

I just hope people stick to the rules because I don’t want them to become stricter.  And more importantly: it’s just the right thing to do.

So there is a lot of positive news coming from Germany. But the crisis is far from over.

Read more from The Local Germany

'Life in Spain won't be the same for a long time', Graham Keeley, Barcelona
Normally at this time of year, we would celebrate with an Easter egg hunt and invite a gaggle of children but this year numbers will be a little depleted. 

Our three boys will snaffle all the chocolate. Not everything about coronavirus is bad!

Tomorrow will mark four weeks in confinement and the reality of life is starting to sink in. 

The novelty has gone and we are starting to look ahead to what this will mean for the rest of the year.

Even if, as seems likely, the lockdown ends some time in May, how will it impact on us as a family? 

Will this mean the children go back to school? Probably not. Imagine sending millions of children back to mix with each other and all that means; it would surely be a madness. 

Then your mind wanders to summer holidays already booked. We have already tried to change flights to, of all places, Venice. We have struggled on the line to a certain low-cost carrier for hours, like many others. 

Summer holidays loom ahead and we start to wonder if we will be travelling anywhere this year. 

However, lurking at the back of our minds is the question of what will happen to our jobs: the big worry. 

 Spanish flag with a black ribbon to pay tribute to the coronavirus victims hangs on a balcony in Madrid. Photo: AFP

Without having any control on all of this, we try to muddle through on a day-to-day basis, with old fashioned games like bobbing for apples, skipping contests and picking Kit Kats off wire suspended over our trampoline; (anything to keep them off the dreaded screens!). 

Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, struck an optimistic tone when he told the parliament that “the fire starts to come under control”. 

He has the unenviable job of deciding if and when we return to 'normal' life. 

Yet, I have the impression, life will not be quite the same for a long while. 

Epidemiologists have predicted a second wave of the virus as often happens with pandemics. 

Preventing this from happening will depend on political leadership at a local level to clamp down when outbreaks are spotted in towns and cities. 

Meanwhile, I am sure we will be walking around wearing masks. 

Many of us will remain at home working there,  looking after children. Offices will be almost empty, restaurants, bars and beaches likewise.

One hopes Spain's politicians can resist the childish temptation to squabble to win points off each other and see the bigger picture.

Read more from The Local Spain

'If people venture outside infections will soar again, we are warned' Helena Bachmann, Lake Geneva, Switzerland
We are finally beginning to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
This week the Federal Council announced that even though it is extending the state of emergency from April 19th to the 26th, it is planning to start loosening the restrictions at the end of the month.
What exactly this means the authorities haven’t said – they will discuss the details on April 16th – but for all of us who have been confined since the measures were introduced on March 16th , this is encouraging news.
Officials did say that the lifting of current measures – closing of all schools, most border crossings, shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment and leisure facilities except grocery stores and pharmacies, as well as the ban on gatherings of more than five people – will be gradual and slow.
It will depend on three factors, they said: the drop in the number of coronavirus infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
Health minister Alain Berset said this week that though there are new Covid-19 cases daily, the general situation is evolving favourably.
Not surprisingly, speculations are rife about what kind of easing measures will take place, and when.
Berset did mention that the de-confinement process will take place “by sectors,” beginning with those which can ensure proper hygiene and social distancing measures.
“This is the condition by which we will be able to return to normal life progressively,” he said.
A lot also depends on what is going to happen this Easter weekend – will the public remain compliant and stay indoors, or will the beautiful weather be too difficult to resist?
If people will venture outside, health officials warned, the number of infections will soar again, postponing any de-confining measures until much later.
So our collective behavior in the days ahead will likely determine if the light at the end of the tunnel will grow brighter or dimmer.
For now, all we can do is sit (indoors) and wait.

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UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?