12 months of coronavirus in Europe

… in this together, with Red Cross Red Crescent

By Susan Cullinan, IFRC

The moment the first coronavirus case was reported in Europe – on 24 January 2020, in Bordeaux, France - no one could have possibly imagined the monumental scale of the year of loss and struggle ahead.

Nor could they have foreseen how Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies stepped up their activities across Europe and Central Asia, enabling them to be at the heart of the response.

Staff and volunteers from the movement have been running first aid tents, delivering critical supplies to the elderly, caring for the sick and dying, at the end of the phone for people unable to leave home. They’ve provided food, shelter, a kind word and a friendly face, supported those who fall through the cracks – the migrants, people on the move, people who are homeless. They’ve provided trusted information.


The numbers are staggering.

More than 12.5 million people across the region have received food and other material aid from Red Cross Red Crescent[1]. More than 2.8 million people have received direct cash or voucher assistance and 1.3 million more received psychosocial support to help them through the tough times.

Red Cross Red Crescent ambulances carried more than 325,000 COVID-19 patients to hospitals. Accurate information was shared to help inform people about the virus and how to stay safe, and an estimated 60 million people in the region have been reached with this messaging.


The breathtaking spread of the virus

With Italy the centre of the first wave, and the first country to go into lockdown, it remained the hardest hit country in Europe for months. Italian Red Cross was the first National Society in Europe to deliver food and medicine to people in quarantine, and ramped up their ambulance service to cope with the escalating number of people infected.

By March Europe was the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, so much so that on 18 March more than 250 million people were in lockdown in Europe. And now, nearly 12 months after the first case, sadly by 19 January 2021, 30.8 million cases were confirmed and 674,00 people in the region had died. [2]

The Red Cross Red Crescent response needed to be swift. On 30 January the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international concern and the following day the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) allocated funds for a Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) and a preliminary Emergency Appeal. With its long experience in health emergencies it anticipated COVID-19 could develop into a pandemic with a devastating humanitarian impact and sadly it has shaped up to be one of the world’s most challenging crises, affecting every corner of the region with everyone vulnerable to contracting this virus.

In line with Red Cross Red Crescent’s unique role as auxiliary to government, and as a community-based and widely-trusted organization, in Europe region the Red Cross movement came up with innovative responses. The Austrian Red Cross developed a contact tracing app. British Red Cross surveyed people on their loneliness and pivoted to provide extra support for those newly alone. The Czech Red Cross trained volunteers to work in hospitals that had become overwhelmed. The Turkish Red Crescent researched people’s knowledge and attitudes towards the virus and pivoted to fill the gaps they discovered. Swedish volunteers helped children with their homework. The Red Crosses of the countries of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia worked together to get supplies across their borders to people in an isolated part of Croatia. Extra support was given to people with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia whose treatment was disrupted by the pandemic.

With the rapid surge in prevention activity, while case numbers grew at an alarming rate, by the end of Spring the situation had improved somewhat.

By summer as numbers plateaued government restrictions relaxed. The movement urged people to stay the course and maintain prevention measures in the face of pandemic fatigue and a sense the worst was behind us.

Second wave

Sadly conditions deteriorated, leading to a second wave. From late July case and death numbers steadily worsened again. By October, the Europe region accounted for the greatest proportion of reported new cases globally, with over 1.3 million new cases in the last week of October, a 33% leap in cases in a week.

The national societies doubled down. Many had by now switched to remote and on-line support, however 23 National Societies continued to deliver COVID-safe clinical and paramedical services, including those in Germany, Italy, Israel, Spain and the UK. As well they ran quarantine and testing stations, triage facilities and outpatient fever clinics to support the public emergency medical service, and provided mobile care services.

Some National Societies also supported experimental treatments by collecting plasma from patients who recovered from COVID-19 and had antibodies, and in turn provided this plasma to hospitals to treat very sick patients. Countless training and guidance sessions for staff and volunteers on COVID-19 were helped across the region, on the proper use of personal protective equipment and ambulances cleaning and disinfection.


Vaccines – a potential game changer

By the start of December, the future started to look brighter. Countries started to plan for the possible arrival of vaccines, but this was taking place against a background of a relentless resurgence in the number of people infected with COVID-19. In the WHO Europe region, there had been more than 4 million new cases in November alone, with the region accounting for 40 % of new global cases and 50% of new global deaths. [3]

The vaccine results have come to be seen a large part of the solutions to containing the virus, but it has brought with it the challenge of countering misinformation and building trust in vaccines, as well as managing expectations that they will bring about a quick end to the pandemic. IFRC has supported local efforts to educate communities about their safety and efficacy.


Those hardest hit

In January more evidence came to light of the disproportionate impact the coronavirus was having on older people when the IFRC’s Europe office published the results of a survey[4] which found older people had become sicker, poorer and more alone as a result of the pandemic. It added to a growing body of evidence that coronavirus had harmed the poor and most vulnerable the most, pushing millions more into poverty. [5] Sadly, migrants were also identified in new IFRC research as those least protected and most affected by the pandemic. [6]

And now, as we enter the start of the second year of the pandemic under ongoing harsh lockdowns, many countries are starting to see cases stabilise and even reduce.

This emergency has had significant challenges, including global flows of misinformation and disinformation, response fatigue and system-wide impacts of multiple waves of cases. The Red Cross Red Crescent movement is well-placed to do its part in the regional response given its extensive history with disease outbreak.

And planners in the movement acknowledge that vaccines will not be the silver bullet to end this pandemic alone. Red Cross will continue to work with communities to ensure they are informed about the virus, how it spreads and what to do to keep safe. It’s continuing to advocate for tracing and isolation of people who are ill as a central part of the response. To keep in the fight against COVID-19, the entire population must stick to the preventative measures which have been proven to help stop the spread of the virus – even as a vaccine becomes more widely available.

[1] https://go.ifrc.org/emergencies/3972#actions

[2] https://covid19.who.int/

[3] https://www.euro.who.int/en/about-us/regional-director/news/news/2020/12/whoeuropes-year-in-review-2020

[4] https://www.ifrc.org/press-release/new-study-finds-coronavirus-has-left-older-people-poorer-sicker-and-more-alone

[5] https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/2020-year-review-impact-covid-19-12-charts

[6] https://www.ifrc.org/press-release/migrants-and-refugees-least-protected-most-affected-covid-crisis-warns-ifrc-president