Now it’s official: The head of the World Health Organization says Europe has become the global epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, replacing China, which is slowly recovering from the pandemic. While transparency is far greater in Europe than in China and the continent’s modern health services can present a relatively accurate picture of the situation, there are a couple of factors rendering Europe particularly vulnerable.
First and foremost, its population is more elderly compared to the rest of the world, and therefore more susceptible to disease. In Italy, for example, 23 percent of the population is over the age of 65, with similar ratios in Spain and Germany. In Israel, by contrast, only 12 percent of the population is over 65—half the European figure. In the Arab countries surrounding Israel, the figure is even lower at only around 6 percent to 7 percent, due to high birth rates.
Second, Europe responded to the outbreak slowly and hesitantly. Across the majority of the continent, measures put in place to stem the spread of the virus have been partial and limited. This hesitant response stemmed at least in part from the ideology currently prevalent in Europe that emphasizes liberty and openness, but also and primarily the selfish interests of the individual, who is prioritized over the good of the many and society at large.
Moreover, there is a distinct connection between these two factors, one which cast its shadow over Europe long before the current outbreak. The European ideal of living for today and preferring a certain quality of life and level of prosperity over having and raising children is at the root of Europe’s low birth rates. These low birth rates have led to severe shortages of workers and to the flooding of the continent with labor migrants from across the globe, mainly from Africa and the Arab world.
In 1960, the population of Europe stood at 400 million people, while the Middle East’s was 100 million. Today, more than 500 million people live in Europe—a growth rate largely attributed to immigration—while some 400 million live in the Middle East. By 2050, the population of the Middle East is expected to hit some 750 million people, while in Europe there will be no change in the number of residents.
The challenge facing Europe was evident as early as 10 years ago, when the threat of Islamic terrorism intensified. At the root of this threat were mostly Muslim immigrants across the continent who had failed to assimilate. The European response to this challenge, however, was denial; instead of eradicating the threat the Europeans—unlike Israel—opted to tolerate extremist ideologies and avoid implementing measures to protect themselves. All in the name of preserving the rights of the individual and concerns over degrading their quality of life.
The coronavirus outbreak, therefore, is a type of alarm bell for Europe, another line of writing on the proverbial wall of crisis in which Europe has been mired for quite some time now.
The Europeans have grown accustomed to criticizing and preaching to the Jewish state, but it appears that tiny Israel has something to teach Europe this time: whether in terms of finding the balance between personal liberties and the good of the many, or, primarily, in terms of adopting the Israeli way of doing things that provides us a modern Western country that remains capable of rallying society and state bodies toward a singular purpose, while maintaining dynamism, growth and openness—and yes, a positive natural growth rate as well.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.