Last year, I spent three months travelling to see what three of Europe’s lesser-known cities showed about life on the Continent in the twenty-first century. Geographically, culturally and economically distinctive, each place – with its own legacy from the past and priorities for the future – illustrates a different aspect of Europe and the challenges it faces.
Now, with the evolving Corona crisis, I’ve popped back – virtually, of course – to see how the three cities are faring. And I’m finding that, once again, the response of each reveals much about its identity and sense of its place in the world, demonstrating that even in times of trouble Europe is fascinating in its diversity.
Europe the Old: Cadiz
The lives of the inhabitants of this tiny city packed onto a promontory in the Atlantic have undergone a dramatic change under Europe’s toughest lockdown. With their reputation for humour and fun, Gaditanos are highly sociable people, accustomed to spending much of their time in the city’s plazas, bars and cafes, while Cadiz’s famous carnival draws thousands of visitors each year. Now, under a confinement in which even exercise is banned, the streets and beaches are empty and residents shut in their apartments.
Now in its second month, Spain’s strict lockdown is generating protests about the effects of the lockdown on children particularly, with the result that the government has promised a minor lifting of restrictions at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, with Andalucia less affected by the virus than some other parts of the country, locals are pushing to be one of the first areas to return to normality in the event of a region-by-region exit strategy.
The region was particularly badly hit by the unemployment which afflicted Spain in the wake of the banking crisis, and many fear the economic consequences of the lockdown. With Cadiz’s economy reliant on tourism, local business people are warning that plans to restrict the use of beaches this summer could have dire effects.
Europe the Aspiring: Tirana
Before Corona, the Albanian capital was been struggling to convince its peers that it is ready for the EU membership. Still in ‘transition’ from the communist system that kept it isolated from the world for nearly fifty years, the city lacks basic infrastructure and lags behind other European nations in human rights. The government’s awareness of the limitations of the healthcare system made it one of the first countries to go into lockdown in early March.
Government communications about the lockdown, which involves a strict curfew enforced by the army and heavy fines, reflect the tone of Balkan politics, with Prime Minister Edi Rama branding those who broke curfew ‘traitors’ and warning citizens against ‘fake news’ about the virus.
So far, the country’s attempts to contain the virus have been successful enough to enable it to send a medical team to help its more affluent neighbour Italy and to begin to lift restrictions on businesses. But a new law punishing those who break quarantine rules and infect others with jail terms of up to eight years is drawing criticism from rights groups.
Europe the New: Tallinn
Since emerging from Soviet communism the same year as Albania, Estonia has gone from strength to strength, with a burgeoning economy largely based around technological innovation. As the country which gave birth to Skype, the small Baltic nation has a comprehensive digital infrastructure which has helped to make it well-prepared to handle a pandemic.
Declaring a state of emergency until 1 May, the country has lighter restrictions than elsewhere. Schools, universities and cultural and leisure organisations are closed, but Estonians are allowed to shop, play and walk as long as they observe social distancing.
But while there’s a degree of normality in the capital, on the island of Saaremaa about about half the residents are believed to have the virus, causing the mayor to resign.
With low numbers affected by the virus nationally, the Estonian government has been in a position to send Italy and Spain face masks as well as cash, and is now preparing to publish its exit strategy.