"How are we going to eat?" Virus tests Europe's social nets

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A customer wearing a face mask and gloves goes shopping in the early morning in a supermarket in the Berlin district of Friedenau, Germany, Tuesday, March 17, 2020 In order to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, the German government has considerably restricted public life. Only 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. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP)

MADRID – The morning rush-hour scene at Madrid’s Atocha train station this week perfectly captured the dilemma facing Europe as it confronts the coronavirus.

Governments have locked down commerce, beefed up health care measures and earmarked billions of euros into Europe's famed safety nets to cushion the economic blow to businesses and blue-collar workers alike from measures meant to contain the virus.

But trimmed commuter train schedules at Atocha, the main gateway into the Spanish capital for the working classes, meant that huge crowds formed on the platforms, defeating the government’s appeal for “social distancing." Layoffs looming and real meant that those who still had work reported for duty - with or without protective masks - even if they would have preferred to stay home.

“I fear the coronavirus, but I fear more not being able to pay the utility bills,” said Mari Carmen Ramírez, 55, who was commuting to her 950-euro ($1,100) a month job as an office cleaner. “When this is all over, how are we going to eat?”

As European governments pass sweeping spending measures to address the pandemic, they are being called on to look out for the workers who are not only losing their jobs - the waitresses and tour guides, hairdressers and hotel maids - but those who still must show up because they can't work from home. Europe’s famed safety nets are being stretched thin, at a time when many economies were already skirting recession and wealth gaps have grown.

Will it be enough?

Governments from Prague to Paris, Lisbon to London are deferring tax payments, approving short-term unemployment schemes and paid sick leave to cover even those in preventive quarantine. Hardest-hit Italy approved 25 billion euros in measures, including vouchers for babysitters. The Czech government offered a 750-euro stipend for students studying abroad who opt to stay abroad through Easter. Denmark said it would pay 75% of employees’ salaries if companies promise not to fire staff.

"This epidemic will be a catastrophe for all countries of the world," warned French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in announcing 45 billion euros ($50 billion) in aid for small businesses on top of the tens of billions already promised for individuals forced to stop working because of workplace closures.