The relative success of East Asian countries in controlling the spread of COVID-19 at its onset was widely attributed to their capacity to learn from previous experience of epidemics, their preparedness to deal with new threats to health, and public acceptance of the need to comply unquestioningly with stringent measures to contain the virus. The conditions were very different when Europe was recognised as the epicentre of the pandemic in March 2020. In a climate of uncertainty, intensified by inconsistent scientific advice and intractable political dilemmas, European governments embarked on a steep learning curve. They experimented with packages of measures based on limited and often conflicting evidence about their effectiveness in preventing transmission of the disease and high excess death rates, amid growing concern about the collateral damage being caused to public health, and to social and economic life.
Drawing on a wide range of multi-disciplinary published materials and official statistics, research articles, reports, briefings and academic debates, as well as media headlines and commentary, this briefing assesses policy learning during the first wave of the pandemic in Europe and asks:
What lessons did European countries, individually and collectively, draw from their own experiences and from the policy responses of neighbouring countries when Europe was the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Were decision-takers better prepared to contain further waves of the disease and to improve outcomes?