Geographies in Depth

From memes to mourning, how Europe is dealing with its darkest hour since World War II

Cemetery workers and funeral agency workers in protective masks transport a coffin of a person who died from coronavirus disease (COVID-19), into a cemetery in Bergamo, Italy March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo - RC22LF9DLNKA

Some crematoria in Italy have started operating 24 hours a day. Image: REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

Josephine Moulds
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  • Europe has more than 150,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
  • Italy's death toll now exceeds China's.
  • To get through the crisis, Europeans are finding ways to connect with one another, from rooftop exercises (with social distancing) to humorous internet memes.

Europe is the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 150,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the continent. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week: “Not since World War Two [have we] faced a challenge that depends so much on our collective solidarity.”

As Italy struggles to deal with its rising numbers of dead, countries across Europe have brought in increasingly strict measures to ensure their citizens stay at home.

Spread of the novel coronavirus, as of March 23, 2020.
Spread of the novel coronavirus, as of March 23, 2020. Note cases shown are confirmed only. Image: Reuters graphics


Italy is now the worst-affected country. As of 23 March, Italy has 59,138 confirmed cases, with 5,476 deaths – which exceeds China's death toll, despite having fewer confirmed infections and a far smaller population.

In the Northern province of Bergamo, the area hardest hit by the virus, the crematorium has started operating 24 hours a day. Funerals have been put on hold; churches are lined with coffins, as local morgues are full.

Residents describe Bergamo as a ghostly place where only ambulances and hearses are on the road at night. Claudia Scotti, a funeral home co-owner, told the Washington Post, “Morgues and health institutions are collapsing. We were absolutely unprepared for an emergency of this kind.”

Italy went into lockdown before other countries in Europe, shutting down most businesses and banning public gatherings nationwide on 12 March. It has now stopped all movement inside the country and closed all non-essential businesses. Those still trading include supermarkets, banks, pharmacies and post offices, but shops are restricting how many people can enter at one time.

Police have been enlisted to enforce the rules. In Rome this weekend, people outside without a valid excuse were fined.

Italian police verify if a man has a valid reason to travel during the lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Rome, Italy, March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Yara Nardi - RC2COF9J2OK6
Police in Rome were fining those outside without a valid excuse. Image: REUTERS/Yara Nardi

The EU itself has introduced strict border controls. Travellers from outside are being turned away from airports and borders, after the 27-country bloc last week imposed a 30-day ban to halt the spread of coronavirus.


In France, deaths from the virus had risen to 674, with a total of 16,018 confirmed cases.

France began its lockdown on 14 April. People are not allowed to leave their homes, unless it is for a sanctioned reason such as buying food, visiting a doctor or going to work. Citizens must carry official paperwork stating why they are not at home, with fines of €135 ($150) for those caught breaking the rules.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told Europe 1 radio, "Some people think they're some kind of modern-day hero when they break the rules – but they're imbeciles, and a danger to themselves."


Germany currently has the lowest mortality rate of the 10 countries most severely hit by the pandemic: the country has 24,873 confirmed cases, and 94 have died. Experts say this is mainly because the outbreak started among younger people who tend to experience milder symptoms.

Germany started testing people with mild symptoms relatively early on. The government’s central public health authority said the country has capacity for 160,000 tests per week.

Germany has closed schools and many businesses and public spaces. On Sunday, the government announced there would be no public gatherings of more than two people, people must keep 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) from others at all times, and restaurants must close. German Chancellor Angela Merkel went into quarantine on Sunday after being told she had come into contact with a doctor who tested positive for COVID-19.

On Monday, the head of the country’s public health institute said there were signs that the exponential upwards curve in new coronavirus infections is levelling off for the first time due to the strict social distancing measures in force.


In the UK, 281 people have died from COVID-19 and there have been 5,863 confirmed cases. Schools closed their doors to all children, apart from those of key workers, on Friday 20 March. Pubs and restaurants are closed and the government has urged citizens to avoid non-essential travel and contact with other people. That did not deter crowds from descending on beauty hotspots and outdoor markets over the weekend, leading to widespread condemnation.


Opposition politicians blamed the government for giving the public mixed messages. On Monday, Britain’s health secretary said stricter rules such as curfews or constraints on movement could come into place “very soon”.

Light relief

Videos of whole neighborhoods signing together in Italy were shared widely last week.

In Spain, someone led a mass exercise class from a flat roof, while another gave a flamenco performance from a balcony.


People found ways to laugh through the crisis. In Spain, a video made fun of the busy schedule of activities citizens were expected to be joining in with while self-isolating.


One Twitter account tweets from the point of view of the virus. In one post, it mocks Phileas Fogg for taking 80 days to travel around the world.


In Switzerland, a local busking group sang about the joys of disinfectant.


The French joked about the effects of confinement.


And in the UK, a video was widely circulated about the joys of self-isolating with your loved ones.

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