By HANNAH NEUMANN
In February, one supermarket in Brussels was giving away a free beer of the brand “Mort Subite” (“Sudden Death”) if you bought two “Corona” beers.
This prompted quite a laugh in the hemicycle when we heard about it.
Many of us were saying “It’s just another flu”, washing our hands and following the situation in China with curiosity.
Well, it is more than just a flu and the#FlattenTheCurve graph was very influential in explaining that we, the healthy ones, bear great responsibility.
Things took a different turn quickly. The coronavirus spread in Italy and all of a sudden, the European Parliament was in the middle of things.
How would our Italian colleagues participate in the plenary session? What would happen if they mixed with colleagues from other member states without corona outbreaks? What about our staff travelling in crowded trains from Strasbourg to Brussels?
Everything which has become normal life, the European way of life, now posed a high risk. And the situation changed by the day.
On 5 March, the regular session in Strasbourg was confirmed. In the evening, it was switched to Brussels. On 9 March, a one-day plenary with no votes was announced, everything else cancelled.
This also meant the end for one of my key projects this month – a resolution on the upcoming EU mission Irene enforcing the arms embargo on Libya. But the crisis had become bigger than our own agendas.
Full of plans for the next weeks – events, reports, travels, releases – we were stuck with handling cancellation emails, watering plants, taking home what we might need, calling IT to make sure we all could work from home, or leaving a voicemail that we may not be able to pick up the office phone for an unknown period of time.
In less than a week, the parliament went from full speed ahead with thousands of people on board down to everyone being forced to work from home. It felt as if someone had pulled the plug.
Last Wednesday (10 March), we said our goodbyes, not knowing when we would see each other again.
I knew we should keep a metre of distance, but sometimes I accidentally hugged someone. It is surprisingly hard to evade close contact in times of emotional distress.
The parliament was in lockdown and so was Brussels and all of Belgium. But when I arrived in Berlin that same day, things seemed to be nearly normal: a bit less traffic at the airport, but regular meetings in the Bundestag, people in pubs, and soccer matches still scheduled with the regular crowd.
I had just hopped from one European city to another and it was a different world.
That changed on Friday. Schools and childcare facilities are closed in Germany now, as well.
People are “hamstering” (yes, there really is a German term for buying everything at the supermarket and stocking it at home), but I also see notes of solidarity popping up: “I am a moderator, so I have no work, can look after kids of those working in healthcare”. Or: “We are young and healthy, if you need someone to do groceries for you, please leave a note in our letter box.” This is heartwarming.
Yesterday, I left for a “coastal-quarantine” with my family. My in-laws live in the countryside with a huge garden. The kids will like it much better there than staying in town. And I even have an office nearby.
We now have phone conferences every morning to coordinate our work, and sometimes just to talk. We continue working on our parliamentary reports and try to bring most activities to social media.
I share some of my quarantine experiences on Instagram and will move towards digital Q&A sessions to replace the in-person meetings that I miss a lot.
All parliamentary activities for next week have been cancelled. Following this, some committee meetings will happen remotely.
There has been no solution for a remote vote in plenary, as of now. But our work needs to continue.
Support packages and relief funding need to be voted in parliament. We are fighting hard to make sure that democratic decision-making continues. Most likely, I will travel to Brussels again, in early April. Things are developing by the day. I’d better get used to it.
A lot of my time went into organising this new life in recent days. But I also closely follow the situation elsewhere.
I have friends in Iran, where the virus is spreading, and the healthcare system is weak. The war in Syria does not stop because of corona, nor do the crises in Libya and elsewhere.
If anything, the virus makes the situation worse. I have colleagues reporting from the refugee camps in Greece, where all the precautionary measures we are taking here are impossible to follow and people already have a very weak immune system.
And I see leaders of some countries ignoring scientific advice and bragging about their capacity to withstand a pandemic.
Much of our fate in the coming weeks will depend on our ability to listen to those who really know how to deal with pandemics and on our capacity as one world to act in solidarity.
We can all follow the precautionary measures to protect the weak.
We can all do a little something to help those working in healthcare or other critical jobs do their work.
We can all show solidarity with those who live in countries that have been hit hardest.
This is the one thing that this virus is teaching us: We are all connected in this world and isolation only works to a certain extent. We need to prove our solidarity with those who are the weakest, to save those who are closest to us.
Hannah Neumann is a German Green MEP who chairs a parliament delegation on relations with the Arab peninsula