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A Red Cross worker is tested for COVID-19 in Italy. Antonio Balasco/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • A new study looks at how the United States and countries in the European Union handled the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Researchers said the U.S. government did not mandate restrictions on states while the European Union did not have the authority to require restrictions on individual countries.
  • Experts say the United States and Europe instituted different types of lockdowns. They also note the politics in the United States is more divisive than in Europe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has held the world in its grip, killing more than 4.4 million people worldwide, including more than 625,000 in the United States and nearly 750,000 in European Union countries.

However, responses to the pandemic differ within the European Union (EU) member states almost as much as they have within individual states in America, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Public Health.

“The complex politics of public health at the EU level have led to the fragmentation of its governance for effective pandemic responses,” the report reads. “This ongoing pandemic has shed light on the fragility of the political and structural systems in Europe in public health emergencies.”

Compared to the United States, many EU member states enforced more comprehensive lockdowns, which were initially effective, said Hannah Sally, MSc, a senior epidemiologist at Informa Pharma Intelligence in the United Kingdom.

“Country-wide lockdowns were much stricter than varying levels of ‘stay at home orders’ issued by states in the U.S., which were effective at reducing the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Sally told Healthline.

“But, they weren’t sustainable in the long term, and once lifted, infection levels rose again,” she said. “There are also many border restrictions in place, which are effective in controlling and preventing the introduction of new variants into countries. But it seems that the lack of uniform border control rules across countries globally has meant the Delta variant has still managed to spread across the world.”

Even with this knowledge, some EU countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands were slow to impose lockdowns and other containments, much like some states in the United States.

Much like the United States, as European countries began to reopen their borders, case rates began surging again, especially when coinciding with many citizens’ summer holidays.

Ultimately, while certain countries within the EU have been better at containing the pandemic than others, the study found that the EU lacked the ability and the credibility to help mount a unified pandemic response.

“Many reported that there was a surprising lack of trust and transparency between the countries, particularly with regard to enacting the International Health Regulations, as set out by the World Health Organization,” the study authors wrote. “The patchwork use of varied short-term – sometimes conflicting – measures created confusion and may have weakened public confidence in national and EU health authorities.

“This study’s main finding is that the limited mandate of the EU in health hinders most effective actions from preventing and tackling infectious disease outbreaks in, in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic.” they wrote. “The EU has no binding power regarding health… [and] cannot enforce any guidelines regarding the organization and delivery of national health systems.”

Patrick Bartosch, MA, a doctoral student in medical ethics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, agreed.

“Both U.S.’s and the EU’s responses have been highly fragmented. U.S. states set their own rules, EU member states set their own,” he said.

There has been one key difference, though, he said: Politics.

“In Europe, we have not yet seen a political left-right fragmentation,” Bartosch told Healthline. “While Republicans are less likely to support COVID restrictions or to get vaccinated, parties on the political right and center-right (with the exception of the extreme right) in Europe have not mirrored this. The U.K.’s measures have been rather strict until recently — same for Germany — and both countries are run by center-right parties. This may also be because Europe does not have as polarizing a media landscape as is the case in the U.S.”