In the battle against Covid-19, Europe looks back to the summer of wasted opportunities.
After the virus was extinguished after months of intense social restrictions last spring, European leaders swiftly took action to speed up the opening up of society to try to boost economic recovery. But the pockets of infection continue and few countries have put in place adequate systems to track and block local outbreaks. To make matters worse, in several regions, the level of infection has never dropped to a level where such systems can work effectively.
The result: A second wave of infections across the continent, which proves difficult to manage and risks Europe having to live with a high rate of infections as early as next year.
“People assumed the situation was under control, but it wasn̵
European countries are trying to take a middle path, neither completely suppressing the virus nor fully opening up their economies, a huge experiment on how to manage a pandemic without violating civil liberties too much or destroying their livelihoods.
Most are now experimenting with localized restrictions on virus hotspots. But the balancing act will be rigorously tested as public compliance is violated and the number of victims rises again. Already, some leaders are abandoning the strategy of lighter touch. The Irish government recently announced a six-week blockade.
“It’s just very difficult,” said Lawrence Friedman, a professor at King’s College London. “People talk as if there is an obvious policy to follow, but there isn’t.”
The race to return to a form of normalcy ignited the virus. On the continent, universities welcomed students, the UK government subsidized millions of restaurant meals to get people to eat outside, and recently opened borders saw tourists flocking to nightclubs in Spain and beaches in France. When the virus disappeared from view, people’s behavior relaxed.
“The authorities prioritize the economy over health, thinking that nothing will happen in the summer,” said Saul Ares, a researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology of the Spanish National Research Council.
Today, this has left leaders with little choice but to restore restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. A state of emergency has been declared in France and Spain. Paris is under curfew at night, and Madrid is locked. People living in Wales are advised to leave the house only for exercise. Face masks are made mandatory in Italy, even outdoors. Although these restrictions are not yet as stringent as the general closure seen earlier this year, they are likely to slow economic growth and test the morale of the population during the winter months, experts say.
In general, European countries are in a better place to deal with the pandemic than in March. Testing capacity has expanded significantly and hospitals are better able to treat patients. Europeans are now accustomed to distancing themselves and wearing masks in public.
But even Italy, traumatized by the early devastation of the northern part of the country and moving more cautiously to reopen its neighbors, has begun to see a sharp rise in cases.
The percentage of those infected in Germany has also started to rise. This is despite a robust testing system built on a world-renowned diagnostic industry that has helped stem the spread of the virus over the summer.
In some ways, European governments had no choice but to reopen and hope that by the fall there would be a vaccine or some other medicine, said Eric Jones, a professor of European studies and international political economy at Johns Hopkins University. In the European Union, the economy shrank 11.8% in the second quarter of the year due to Covid-19. “You were not invited to many dinners if you foresaw a three-year pandemic,” he said.
The 27 EU countries and the United Kingdom reported 259 new cases of coronavirus per million for an average of seven days to Thursday, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. That compares to less than 10 in early May, when Europeans came out of the blockade.
France reported more than 27,000 new cases of coronavirus infection over an average of seven days to Thursday. During the same period, the UK registered an average of 19,500 cases a day, Spain almost 15,000, Italy over 12,000 and Germany 7,800.
With the reduction of restrictions on locking and the opening of international borders, the movement of people has increased and contributed to the resurgence of Covid-19 cases and deaths.
Change in visits to public places
Note: Data includes Monday only
Part of the explanation for the jump in the cases is widespread testing. But hospitalizations and deaths are also on the rise, a sign of a worsening pandemic. France and the United Kingdom reported an average of more than 150 Covid-19 deaths a day from seven days to Thursday. Spain reports more than 120. That’s far fewer than the nearly 1,000 deaths a day recorded in each of these countries during the spring peak of the pandemic, but sharply by the jet deaths observed in the summer.
The coronavirus needs social contact to jump from host to host. When economies reopened, summer tourism resumed, and Europeans emerged from weeks of blockade to visit bars and restaurants – and eventually return to school and university – spider transmission chains lengthened and multiplied. The ability of the virus to spread received an additional boost as summer turned into autumn and Europeans spent more time indoors next to others.
Some countries actively encourage people to look like normal people. In August, the British government subsidized more than 64 million restaurant meals to help the country’s difficult service sector. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called on Britons to return to work to increase footsteps in urban centers.
Although governments have expanded testing capacity, critical issues remain, including slow implementation times due to a lack of laboratory capacity, meaning that countries are struggling to conduct enough testing to match the scale of the outbreak. In France, Spain, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, testing and tracking systems have failed.
Contact tracking applications also often fail. In France, less than 5% of the population has withdrawn government applications. “It didn’t work out,” French President Emmanuel Macron said last week. “I asked our teams to completely rework things.”
Government support for quarantined people is volatile across Europe, which, according to disease experts, could undermine compliance with quarantine directives.
“I’m sure some people don’t claim to be sick because they will have to stop working,” said Yazdan Yazdanpanah, an infectious disease expert at Bichat Hospital in Paris and a member of the scientific committee advising the French government on Covid-19.
One of the main differences during the second wave of the virus: Public support for tackling the pandemic by governments is uncertain, raising questions about how resilient the last round of restrictions will be.
“If you have large sections of society who are just not convinced of what they want to do, there is a time when people stop agreeing to it, or the level of resentment builds up until policies become unstable,” Robert said. Dingwall, Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham Trent.
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Faced with this, governments are nervous about imposing a full blockade, preferring instead a set of smaller measures that they hope will stop the spread. Britain has introduced a three-tier system of restrictions, placing parts of the North of England where the virus spreads rapidly under the most onerous rules and leaving other areas relatively free. In the Italian city of Naples, local authorities have ordered schools to be closed for two weeks from Friday.
Disease experts recognize that blocking across the country is an outright, if effective, tool and that targeted measures can work if their purpose is clearly communicated to the public and they are implemented effectively.
“Living with this virus will be a trial and error process,” said Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
—Matthew Dalton in Paris and Giovanni Legorano in Rome contributed to this article
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