BRUSSELS — European Union leaders vowed Tuesday to stand united in combating the spread of the coronavirus ravaging member country Italy, and agreed to draft a plan to address any medical shortages and set up a fund to help overburdened health care systems.
The pledges came at a rare video conference among national heads of state and government as COVID-19, which is now present in all 27 EU member countries, took its toll on European politics, forcing meetings to be canceled, a parliamentary session to be cut short, and even sending some senior officials home to work.
“Our citizens health is the first priority,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters in Brussels after hosting the summit before two screens in a small room at EU headquarters, in stark contrast to a large oval table where the leaders usually sit side by side. “We have decided to act. We have decided to be fast, and to be strong, and to work together.”
The leaders agreed that the bloc’s health and interior ministers would talk daily to ensure that any border or quarantine measures were coordinated with their neighbors. The EU’s executive commission will take a Europe-wide inventory of all medical equipment, particularly masks and respirators, and buy more if needed.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the launch of a “corona response investment fund” seeded with 7.5 billion euros that she said would reap billions more. It’s aimed at propping up health care structures, small businesses suffering from the impact of the virus and labor markets where jobs might be hit.
According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control’s latest figures, there have been 14,890 confirmed cases of the virus across Europe, including 532 deaths. The EU medicines agency said it’s received no reports of medicine shortages so far, but can’t rule out such problems in the future.
The European Commission says all 27 member states now have patients confirmed with the fast-spreading illness.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
“What we are living is a true world crisis,” French President Emmanuel Macron said after the meeting. He said the leaders insisted that any “decisions taken in this crisis must, above all, be based on scientific data and the on consensus of scientists.”
“Together we are ready to take necessary decisions, indispensable measures to confront this epidemic and its consequences … and avoid all forms of financial and economic instability,” Macron said.
“The most important part right now is to slow down the spread. So, to prolong the time before infection takes place,” von der Leyen told reporters. “If there are too many infections in too short a time it is a huge strain for the health sector.”
The EU leaders agreed to follow up in person — if that is still possible — at a new summit in Brussels on March 26-27.
The disease that shutdown Italy hasn’t hit the home of Europe’s main institutions in a major way as yet, but it is increasingly striking at the heart of European politics.
The EU has cut down on events, calling meetings between ambassadors and experts only when necessary. The European Parliament was meant to meet until Thursday, but will ended its session Tuesday. A meeting of foreign ministers focused on trade meant to take place on Thursday has also been canceled, as has a justice ministers’ meeting scheduled for Friday.
Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.
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