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Coronavirus capital by capital: How are Europeans coping with shutdown?



Mark Lowen

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For BBC Rome correspondent Mark Lowen, Italy’s deserted capital is reminiscent of wartime curfews

Across the Continent, Europeans are facing a barrage of restrictions on their freedoms as the authorities struggle to stop the new coronavirus spreading further. BBC correspondents describe the challenges faced in the cities where they live.

Spaniards do their best amid worsening crisis

Fear and uncertainty have encouraged residents to largely comply with a national lockdown which means they are not allowed out without a justifiable reason.

Madrid is at the heart of Spain’s pandemic. With about half of the country’s deaths, it has seen hotels and a massive conference centre converted into makeshift hospitals and an ice rink turned into a morgue.

A few shoppers go in and out of supermarkets and stay 1m (3ft) apart at the checkout. At pharmacies only one or two customers are allowed inside at a time, so queues of masked people snake out onto the street.

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Paseo de la Castellana, a major street in central Madrid, is almost deserted

Police enforce the restrictions and thousands of people have been fined. But the response has mostly been positive and the hashtag #QuedateEnCasa (stay at home) has caught the imagination. A wealth of specially created online activities has emerged to make the confinement more bearable for both parents and kids.

Grandparents play a huge role in childcare in Spain and there is widespread sympathy that they cannot be with their grandchildren.

At eight o’clock every night, Spaniards applaud the healthcare workers who are battling the virus.

Eternal city stilled as catastrophe grips Italy

I peer out of my window to see how long the queue is for the supermarket next door. If it’s more than 10 people, that could mean a half-hour wait to be let in one by one. As it happens, it’s shorter, so I nip down.

It’s calm and orderly. People chat while waiting, sharing surreal experiences. There’s no hoarding or panic buying. The toilet roll shelves have a few gaps but everything is still available.

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The streets of Rome are regularly disinfected

Outside, trams and buses still run – but they’re almost empty. Rome’s cobbled streets are pretty deserted. Movement is restricted to urgent medical or professional need. Police make spot checks on papers to justify why people are out. I was stopped on a run and told I could only exercise within 300m of my home. It’s reminiscent of wartime curfews.

Tourist sites are silent. In some ways, it’s a privilege to see the beauties of Rome so quiet – if it weren’t for the catastrophic circumstances that have made them so.

France finds its collective spirit

As the eye of this storm moves across eastern France, there’s a sense of officials racing to catch up with the wave: an emergency scramble for intensive-care beds and face masks for medical staff; a tightening of social restrictions seen as the main barrier to catastrophe.

Joggers can exercise no more than 1km (0.6 miles) from home, for no more than an hour, no more than once a day.

A hundred thousand police officers have been deployed to enforce the rules and there’s a six-month jail sentence for those who repeatedly fail to comply.

A friend told me how a neighbour of hers was fined for sitting alongside her husband in their car. My camera crew and I were stopped near the BBC office – the rules had changed and we now needed permission to be out filming.

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Queuing for a baguette in Paris may be a chore but it is a welcome chance to go outdoors

With each tightening of the quarantine, the pressure ratchets up another notch. And yet, there’s also something else that reveals itself in the small daily spaces of life under lockdown.

My husband and I regularly confront the question of who should take out the rubbish, but now I find myself quietly sizing up an opportunity of a few seconds out. A mundane chore, morphed into a rare treat.

The queue for my local supermarket now snakes around the block each day. And yet, I’ve had more conversations there, met more people, felt the collective spirit more than ever before.

Germans cling to outdoor freedoms

“I’ve got a whole pallet of toilet paper if you want it!” chuckled the delivery man as I walked past my little local supermarket. It’s been impossible to find, and pasta and flour shelves are always empty, too. Berliners must be doing a lot of home baking.

They’re certainly doing a lot of jogging. The terms of Germany’s lockdown differ slightly from state to state, but all allow for the national obsession with fresh air. People can leave their homes – as long as they’re with members of their own household.

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People queue 1.5m apart to buy organic groceries in Berlin

You can meet up with one other person to take the air, exercise or chat – strictly 1.5m apart of course. In this city of apartment dwellings, that matters.

The number of infections is rising. Many of those tested so far have been young and fit, some having returned from skiing holidays in Austria and Italy. Virologists speculate that this may be the reason for the relatively low number of deaths. But they warn, bleakly, that it will rise.

Challenge of densely populated Netherlands

Schiphol airport near Amsterdam was eerily quiet when I returned there from Scotland with my three-year-old, just as the crisis began to affect every aspect of life.

While we were away, a parent at my daughter’s nursery in The Hague tested positive for coronavirus, so I kept my daughter with me, working from home.

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Anna Holligan has been working from home with her daughter in The Hague

How do you keep your distance in one of the world’s smallest and most densely populated countries?

It’s a challenge 17.2 million people in the Netherlands have been told to embrace as the government pursues a “group (or herd) immunity” strategy – cocooning the most vulnerable while trying to control the spread of the virus.

The trams are largely empty, cannabis cafes are only doing takeaways, and now the council has told people not to visit the woods or the sand dunes. There will be no swimming, ballet, play dates or trips to the park for my daughter.

Anger and generosity in Hungary’s capital

The mood in this city of rebels and coffee shops is downbeat. Cafes are closed, and people queue a metre apart in swirling snow outside post offices, bakeries and pharmacies.

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Andras Foldes

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As wintry conditions returned to Budapest, the government sought unlimited powers to tackle the crisis

“My children think I’m at home, but in fact I’m going shopping,” an elderly lady confided to her friend on the 27 bus.

“They ordered me to stay at home, but I don’t like the food they bring me.”

The Budapest Bike Maffia, a civic group on wheels, has launched a Vitamin Boom campaign, distributing hot food and vitamins to homeless shelters.

Health crisis resurrects old borders

The spread of the pandemic has prompted a diplomatic row between Slovenia and neighbouring Serbia over the plight of more than 100 Serbian citizens.

They work in Slovenia, but remain Serbian residents. And when Serbia closed its borders last Friday, they remained stranded – some sleeping in their cars.

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This park in Ljubljana has been left deserted by the lockdown

Despite the tiff, both countries are facing a similar challenge. Slovenians only have to look across the border to Italy to see how serious this pandemic can become; Serbians are all too aware of the limitations of their health service.

Slovenians normally throw themselves into activities like skiing, snowshoeing and ice-climbing. But winter sports have been cancelled and the streets of Ljubljana are so quiet that birdsong is often the loudest noise.

In Serbia, flouting self-isolation and quarantine orders has led to increasingly restrictive curfews.

Observing quarantine in Austria’s capital

Most Austrians are self-isolating at the moment after strict controls were imposed by the government in mid-March. They are only allowed to leave home for essential work, to buy food or to help others.

But I can’t leave the house at all.

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Bethany has appeared live on BBC World News while in quarantine in Vienna

I have recently returned from working in Italy and have to stay in for two weeks.

I tried to get a delivery of supplies, but all deliveries are booked up for several weeks, so I am reliant on kind friends to bring food to me.

The streets are uncharacteristically quiet. I have become intensely aware of church bells ringing out on the hour all day long.

And every evening, a saxophonist plays Moon River and Summertime from his window.

Is Sweden ready for social distancing?

The view from my top-floor apartment in southern Stockholm has barely changed since the start of the crisis. Toddlers bundle up in warm jackets in the playground; commuters wait at the bus stop for reduced services; my local pizzeria remains popular with eat-in customers.

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Buses run but there are fewer of them in Stockholm

Sweden’s coronavirus death toll is lower than many of its European neighbours, and the authorities have made it clear they want to slow down the virus in a calm and controlled way. Large events are banned and secondary schools and universities are closed.

Swedes have been advised to work from home, avoid non-essential travel and stop visiting elderly relatives. Restaurants and bars have been told to offer table service (or take-out), to stop people lingering over counters.

I have friends who’ve been voluntarily self-isolating for a week despite showing no symptoms, while others have caught the train up to ski resorts.

More than half of Stockholmers live alone, but even the most introverted of my acquaintances are already fearful of increased loneliness should the government impose stricter rules.

Finns struggle to abandon outdoor life

People here may joke that social isolation isn’t a problem, as that’s how Finns live anyway.

But not enough of them are actually doing it, judging by the crowded running track at Toolonlahti Bay at the weekend.

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This Finnish bakery created some comic relief by poking fun at people stockpiling toilet paper

Finns were first told to self-isolate as much as possible. Schools, cultural and sporting facilities were shut, and entry in and out of Finland was restricted.

But so many people travelled north to ski resorts in Lapland that the slopes were closed.

Now the government has gone further, in effect sealing off the southern region of Uusimaa, home to a third of Finland’s population and the capital Helsinki.

Most of Finland’s coronavirus cases are here and social isolation has suddenly become more serious.

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Iran Agency Says Chain of Errors Caused Ukrainian Plane Crash | World News




DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation blamed a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defence operator and his commanders for the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane in January that killed 176 people aboard.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight with a ground-to-air missile on Jan. 8 shortly after the plane took off from Tehran,in what Tehran later acknowledged as a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert during a confrontation with the United States.

“A mistake in aligning the radar system had caused human error. An operator had forgotten to re-adjust the direction on the radar system after moving to a new position, an error that contributed to misreading the radar’s data,” an interim report on the Civil Aviation Organisation (CAO) website said.

The CAO report, which was published on late Saturday, said the missile battery that targeted the passenger plane had been relocated and “was not properly reoriented”.

The downing occurred at a time of high tension between longtime foes Iran and the United States. Iran was on alert for attacks after it fired missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces in retaliation for the killing on Jan. 3 of its most powerful military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. missile strike at Baghdad airport.

“A failure occurred after the relocation of one of the air defence units of Tehran  … It occurred because of a human error,” the CAO report said, adding that the plane was detected by the system as a target approaching Tehran.

The operator of the air defence system “lacked awareness of the relocation of the air defence unit”, and fired the two missiles without authorisation from the command centre, the report said.

“When the first missile was fired, the passenger plane was flying at a normal altitude and trajectory,” the report added.

Last month, Iran said the black boxes of the Boeing 737-800 airliner will be sent to France, to be analysed starting July 20.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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Pope Francis ‘very distressed’ over Hagia Sophia mosque move | World news




Pope Francis has said he was “very distressed” over Turkey’s decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

“My thoughts go to Istanbul. I’m thinking about Hagia Sophia. I am very distressed,” the pontiff said in the Vatican’s first reaction to a decision that has drawn international criticism.

On Saturday the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano carried reaction from various countries to Friday’s decision, without making any comment.

A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced on Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on 24 July at the Unesco world heritage site.

In the past, he has repeatedly called for the building to be redesignated as a mosque, and in 2018 he recited a verse from the Qur’an at Hagia Sophia.

Erdoğan’s announcement came after a court cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey’s secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.

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EU leaders are split over coronavirus recovery | World news




Lockdown has proved challenging for most workplaces, and the European Council is no different. All-night sessions, corridor huddles and fine dining in the glass Europa building in Brussels have been replaced with hours staring at a gallery of fellow heads of state reading out prepared lines in front of a backdrop of EU and national flags – and the odd bit of pop art, as in the case of Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel.

But this week, leaders will be forced to switch off their laptops and make their way across recently reopened borders to Brussels for their first face-to-face meeting in five months – and it is set to be a bruising encounter.

With the continent heading into a recession not seen since the 1930s, the EU’s institutional heads, the presidents of the European commission and council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, have struggled to find consensus between sparring member states over both a long-term budget and a huge one-off economic stimulus. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and French president, Emmanuel Macron, have given their backing to a €750bn (£675bn) pandemic recovery fund. But “frugal” northern states have raised issues. Efforts to placate them have angered Hungary’s nationalist prime minister and the European parliament.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have backed the €750bn pandemic recovery fund. Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/EPA

“It became obvious deals weren’t going to be made online,” said one EU official. “You need the work in the margins, bilaterals and discussions between advisers to find the common ground. It needed a physical meeting.”

But the set-up will be far from normal this weekend. The usual back-slapping and cheek-kissing will be replaced by social distancing in the presence of mask-wearing aides. The army of reporters that flock to the summits has also been banned from taking the usual seats in the expansive foyer of the Justus Lipsius building next door to the Europa.

The European commission forecasts an 8.3% drop in economic activity across the EU this year followed by a 5.8% rebound in 2021 but countries are expected to emerge from the crisis at starkly different speeds, risking a breakdown in the bloc’s single market as the disparity between Europe’s haves and have-nots is exacerbated

In Brussels’ latest proposal, Michel, a former Belgian prime minister said to have had a lacklustre first year in his role chairing leaders’ debates, only appeared to stir up new problems.

In response to the unapologetically “frugal” positions taken by Mark Rutte, the Netherlands’ prime minister, Michel tabled a €25bn smaller seven-year budget than last proposed, through which day-to-day programmes including the common agricultural policy are funded.

He also suggested greater accountability for countries seeking cash from the separate recovery pot, which is to be partly financed through issuing joint EU debt. But the move to placate the Dutch ended up annoying Hungary and Europe’s parliament.

One of the big tasks facing Brussels is bridging the demand for financial relief from countries such as Italy and Spain, whose economies are in freefall due to the pandemic, and maintaining the faith of sceptical taxpayers in the richer north. “Are European governments ready for their business to be our business?” asked one EU diplomat from a northern state.

Confirming EU officials’ predictions that the leaders faced a “very difficult” meeting, with doleful diplomats fearful that the talks starting on Friday will drag on into Sunday, Michel’s plan to find the right balance drew immediate fire from countries outside the “frugal four” of the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Austria, who have hitherto made Michel’s life difficult by demanding less spending and tighter controls.

Following Michel’s suggestion that the commission be joined by the European court of auditors, the EU’s financial watchdog, in reporting on the governance of member states seeking recovery cash, and making funding conditional on backing from a qualified majority of member states, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán was first to go on the attack.

Speaking on state-owned Kossuth Rádió, Orbán threatened to scupper both the long-term budget and the recovery fund if “rule of law” strings were attached to funds, telling reporters “there will not be an economic restart, there will not be a budget, there will be drawn-out debates”.

“Let’s put this debate aside now,” Orbán said. “Let’s resolve the economic problems, restart our economies, start creating jobs, then we can continue the rule of law debates.”

Hungary and Poland could be big winners from the recovery fund but are facing proceedings over concerns that changes to their judicial systems have undermined the independence of their judges and breach EU treaties.

There was also rejection of Michel’s proposals from the European parliament’s negotiators, who disapprove of cuts to the budget known as the multi-annual financial framework.

Both the budget and recovery fund have to be approved by MEPs. A cross-party group has been tasked with finding a package that can command a majority in the chamber. The European parliament has strongly advocated a significantly larger budget for the bloc than Michel’s proposal of €1.074tn over seven years.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has threatened to scupper any budget deal that comes with ‘rule of law’ strings attached. Photograph: Janek Skarżyński/AFP/Getty Images

Rasmus Andresen, a Green MEP who is the only German budget negotiator for the parliament, told the Observer that Michel’s proposal would be swiftly voted down if it came to the chamber. He said: “We need a strong budget and if you want to deal with the future challenges you need to invest and it is not enough to have a recovery fund for three or four years.

There is a lot of criticism in the parliament and it will be much louder when colleagues are analysing what it means.”

If this week’s meeting fails to find common ground, a second has been pencilled in for the last week of July, with Merkel insisting the EU must resolve the problem by the summer.

Rutte – whose country would benefit from Michel’s proposed retention of its budget rebate and €5bn reserve set aside should the UK end its relationship with the EU without a new deal – said he would “handle” any criticism at this week’s summit.

“I’m not made of marzipan,” he said. “It is starting to go our way.”

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