From nationwide lockdown to life as normal: COVID-19 restrictions in the eyes of European students
The standard response strategy against the COVID-19 pandemic - which was pioneered by China in January and then replicated across the globe - is to implement total lockdowns, where residents are required to stay at home and keep social distancing in an effort to slow down the spread of the virus. However, other strategies have been set up by countries in the face of this unique situation.
Some nations, such as France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have implemented semi-lockdown strategies, where people are given some added liberties, such as the possibility to leave the house to exercise outside. On the other end of the spectrum is Sweden, whose herd immunity and life-as-normal approach to the pandemic has been the center of much debate.
The word is still out on the effectiveness and long-term healthcare and economic impact of these measures. And what about the mental well-being of those living in these countries? Have the different strategies impacted their mental health differently, or are they facing similar issues? Anxiety, motivational problems, distorted sleep patterns, and feelings of loneliness have all soared during this pandemic, but to what extent is it related to the tightness of each country’s response?
Over the last few weeks, we have been focused on investigating how these measures have been affecting the mental wellbeing and health of students in 9 European countries: Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, UK and Sweden.
In our study, we have conducted several interviews with university students and psychologists. The series of articles that we have created will answer important emerging questions, including:
In this initial entry in the series, you can also find a reminder of what has been the situation that students faced in their respective countries. Take a quick look before you dig deeper into their responses!
How restrictive were the measures in 9 home countries of our student interviewees?
What specific rules did the nationals of each of these countries have to follow?
At this point, most countries have begun easing restrictions and allowing their inhabitants more liberties. However, the following sections provides an overview of what the measures were like at the peak of the pandemic.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by the pandemic, and also the first that imposed full lockdown as a response strategy on March 20th. As explained by a student in Milan, “you are only allowed outside to go to the supermarket, the pharmacy, work, or to let your dog out”. In other words, before measures were lessened, residents could only go outside for the essentials. When outside, you must wear a mask and respect basic social distancing rules.
Spain is the second southern European country that opted for the full lockdown strategy. On March 14th, the president declared a state of emergency (meaning that control by the central government rather than by the autonomies as per usual) and a state-wide lockdown. In a similar vein to Italy, Spanish residents were only allowed to go outside for the essentials, and the whole country shut down. After April 27th, following 45 days of lockdown, children were allowed to go for a walk for 1 hour, and after May 2nd, adults were allowed to leave the house during 1h to walk/exercise in strictly defined timeframes.
France also adopted a lockdown strategy on March 17th, although its measures were slightly softer than those in Spain and Italy. French residents were only allowed to go outside for essential things, for which they had to have a travel certificate premade by the government (a lack of this certificate could be fined with up to €3,650 and 6 months imprisonment). In addition, people were allowed to go outside to exercise for 1 hour before 10:00 and after 19:00.
At the start of the pandemic, the UK’s plan was to go for the herd immunity approach (where a sufficient proportion of the population has immunity to the virus such that it slows disease spread). However, the approach was radically changed in late March, where a full lockdown was imposed. Non-essential businesses were closed, and social gatherings were forbidden. Finally, other than for the essentials or to do sport, people had to stay at home.
The lockdown situation in Belgium is similar to that in France. Starting on March 17th, Belgium’s residents were required to isolate themselves at home and were only allowed to go outside with authorization for the essentials (e.g. supermarket, pharmacy) or to do sport.
As the lockdown eases, going for a walk with someone else will be allowed as long as the 1.5m social distancing is respected. Slowly, non-essential stores and schools are starting to open, with adaptations to ensure the lockdown rules are respected. Residents are required to wear masks in public spaces and transport.
Switzerland has been in partial lockdown since March 16th. All recreational shops, bars, restaurants and public buildings were shut down. Grocery stores cannot let in more than 50 people. However, Swiss nationals were able to go out to exercise and could meet in groups of 5 people as long as 2m social distancing was maintained.
As lockdown is loosened, shops that can control who is allowed in and can maintain a protection program are opening up again, as well as stores and primary schools.
Compared to other European countries, the Netherlands has responded to COVID-19 with a laxer approach entailing a semi-lockdown, or as people call it, an intelligent lockdown. People can freely leave the house and meet in groups of maximum 3 people (this rule is not applicable for households, who can leave in bigger groups). The social distancing of 1.5m must be kept at all times. Unlike other countries, Dutch households can receive up to 3 visitors inside as well.
Despite the freedoms mentioned above, life is not the same as it used to be in the Netherlands. HoReCa and contact professions are closed, and education has transitioned to being online. In addition, rules regarding social gatherings and distancing are in place until September 1st at least.
Sweden has responded to the pandemic with an approach opposite to the lockdown trend other countries seem to be following. The Nordic country has not imposed a lockdown, under the rationale that it would be impossible to work around the economic fallout if things were to be shut down completely. The country’s leadership mostly relies on the goodwill and common sense of their citizens in these tough times. The government recommends avoiding unnecessary gatherings and to work from home as much as possible, but there are no official lockdown rules. Simply, social gatherings of over 50 people have been forbidden, and places where large groups could gather have been closed. High school and higher education institutions have also transitioned towards online education, but elementary schools continue to be open as normal.
Our current project investigates students’ mental health and well-being across Europe. The following publication will address student’s concerns in these types, as well as their coping mechanisms.
This article was based on the compiled interviews with 50+ students residing in different European countries.