Opinion

The European Union in the face of the pandemic: a historical overview

MADRID

In September 1821 an epidemic of yellow fever broke out in Palma de Mallorca. It was not, of course, the first and perhaps not the most important epidemic to have occurred on the island. 

The death toll in the city alone was 3,194 people, it lasted more than four months and most of the people who fell ill died. 

After the first case was detected - what we would now call patient zero - strict measures were taken to stop the spread of the disease because its disastrous effects were well known. 

The houses of those affected were sealed off, then the streets, then the blocks, and finally a cordon sanitaire was set up separating the city from the rest of the island.

When the pandemic started in Europe, I could not help but remember this event that I had researched many years before. Not only because it was an epidemic, but above all because I initially had the feeling that the measures taken at that time were very different from those imposed on us in 2020. 

I also recalled another research project with which I collaborated around the same time, concerning Mallorca's trade in the 17th century with the French, Italian and North African ports with which the island had greater contact. 
To do so, it was necessary to study a kind of passport that ships arriving at any port had to carry with them, which contained, in addition to other data relating to the cargo, the port of departure and those in which, if any, they had landed.

This document also had a prophylactic function in that, if there was news of an outbreak of an infectious disease in any of the ports listed on the passport, both the crew and the goods carried by the ship had to be isolated.

History had taught Europeans one thing: the sea, then the best means of transporting goods, was at the same time the most vulnerable, and the health and safety not only of coastal towns but, in some cases, of the whole country and, as happened with the so-called "Black Death" centuries later, of the whole of Europe, depended on keeping the ports as tightly under control as possible. 

It should be recalled that between 1347 and 1350, our continent "and the whole known world" witnessed a ferocious plague pandemic that left a trail of death and destruction in its wake. 

Coming from the East, it reached an already economically and socially stricken West, where famine, war and revolt were rampant and political instability was rife.

Certainly, humanity had already known other plagues and epidemics, but the 1348 pandemic, due to its characteristics, marked a before and after in many respects and had an enormous impact both on its contemporaries and on subsequent generations. 

Other plagues of greater or lesser intensity also occurred in the following centuries. Probably the most lethal and devastating was the influenza epidemic that took place between 1916 and 1918, which killed between 20 and 40 million people in just one year and which, like the Black Death, was one of the clearest examples in the history of mortality crises. 

While medical knowledge in the Middle Ages and later periods was far from that of today, the global scale of the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a challenge to governments and health authorities, in my view, similar to that of previous plagues. 

In fact, focusing only on Europe, the bewilderment and heterogeneity of the response of each of the countries at first showed that the necessary mechanisms were not in place to face a health challenge of such magnitude, either jointly or with similar criteria. 

But also, during the development of the pandemic - in which we are still immersed - the responses that each of the Member States have given to the socio-economic consequences derived from the restrictions imposed for health reasons have, in some cases, been very different, which will necessarily lead us to a post-pandemic scenario in which the differences between countries will probably be glaring.   

The fact that we have well-equipped hospitals, with facilities such as intensive care and surveillance units, has played an important role in our favour. Also, having a pharmaceutical industry capable of producing large quantities of antiviral antibiotics and, of course, having a greater capacity to produce vaccines.

However, when we look at the past, we can see, as I mentioned previously, that the first response to the spread of disease has hardly differed from that of previous centuries, despite the fact that, at that time, the routes of contagion, let alone the nature of the pathogens, were clearly unknown.  I am referring to confinement and perimeter closures, formerly known as "cordon sanitaire". 

However, measures which throughout history were considered essential and proved to be useful, such as the control of travellers arriving from places where an epidemic had broken out, were not considered necessary at first, and in some cases not even when the objective data and the numbers involved made it absolutely advisable. 

In this respect, too, there has been no unity of approach, so that in countries such as Greece, where the weakness of its health system and its almost total economic dependence on tourism were recognised from the outset, measures were taken as early as the summer of 2020 to ensure, for example, that its international airports had the necessary health checks for passengers arriving from abroad.  

In other countries, however, this control was not so rigorous initially or subsequently, even though it proved to be essential. 

Given that EU member states theoretically share information on the development of the pandemic, it is surprising that this and other measures have not generated a unity of criteria, especially because the capillarity of the European borders of the Schengen area means that the decisions of some states with respect to third countries can have a lethal impact on the rest.  

Gari Durán Vadell, PhD in Ancient History and Vice-President of INCO Human Rights