'On the brink of disaster': Europe's Covid fight takes a turn for the worse

Jon Henley in Paris
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images

“It’s not a word I’ve heard in a long, long time,” an elderly Paris resident said, leaving her apartment in mask and gloves for an early expedition to the shops. “A curfew. That’s for wartime, isn’t it? But in a way I suppose that’s what this is.”

Europe’s second coronavirus wave took a dramatic turn for the worse this week, forcing governments across the continent to make tough choices as more than a dozen countries reported their highest ever number of new infections.

In France, 18 million people in nine big cities risk a fine from Saturday if they are not at home by 9pm. In the Czech Republic, schools have closed and medical students are being enlisted to help doctors. All Dutch bars and restaurants are shut.

Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland are among countries to have broken daily case records, prompting the World Health Organization to call for an “uncompromising” effort to stem the spread.

Unfortunately, that requires making all but impossible compromises.

Most European governments relaxed strict lockdowns over the summer to revive economies shattered by the pandemic’s first wave. The return of normal activity, from packed bars to new academic terms, has fuelled an exponential increase in infections.

With infections across the continent breaking the barrier of 120,000 a day, authorities must now tighten restrictions once more to slow the spread of the disease – while doing all they can to avoid destroying already-jeopardised jobs and livelihoods.

Pharmacists in a chemist in Rome.
Pharmacists in a chemist in Rome. Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/EPA

They are also facing legal challenges: the Dutch government must work out how it can make masks mandatory while complying with the law, and a Berlin court suspended a city order requiring bars to close at 11pm, for lack of evidence it would prove effective.

In France, which reported more than 30,000 new infections on Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron said a curfew was needed to halt “the parties, the moments of conviviality, the festive evenings … They accelerate the disease. We have to act.”

The government will deploy 12,000 police to enforce it, and spend an extra €1bn (£900m) to help already hard-hit businesses in the entertainment and hospitality sectors. “We cannot live normally while the virus is here,” the prime minister, Jean Castex, said.

As in many countries, hospital and particularly intensive care unit capacity is starting to become a serious concern. Aurélien Rousseau, director of the Paris region’s public health agency, said nearly half of its ICU beds were now occupied by Covid patients, with other hospital beds filling rapidly too.

“It’s a kind of rising spring tide that affects everybody, simultaneously,” Rousseau said. “We had a blind spot in our tracking policies, one that’s actually very difficult to track – it’s the private sphere, festive events.”

Alarm bells have begun ringing increasingly loudly in Germany, too, which has one of the strongest coronavirus records in Europe but reported more than 6,600 cases in 24 hours on Thursday – 300 more than its previous high set in late March.

The chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the country’s 16 state governors, who are responsible for imposing and lifting restrictions, agreed to tighten mask-wearing rules, oblige bars to close early and limit gatherings in areas where infection rates are high.

A sign advertising face masks on Berlin’s famous shopping street Kurfuerstendamm.
A sign advertising face masks on Berlin’s famous shopping street Kurfürstendamm. Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/EPA

But Merkel reportedly wanted more, arguing Germany’s response in the coming days and weeks would be decisive in determining how well it made it through the crisis, and her chief of staff admitted the measures “probably won’t be enough”.

Italy also reported a record 8,800 new cases on Thursday; Rome has already imposed tough new rules, including an end to parties, amid rumours of a nationwide 10pm curfew. The Campania region has closed its schools, with Milan likely to follow.

Even countries that managed the first wave well are struggling badly. The Czech Republic now has Europe’s highest per capita infection rate, with a high of 9,720 daily infections on Thursday. It is building a virus hospital in Prague’s exhibition centre.

“We have to build extra capacity as soon as possible,” the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, said. “We have no time. The prognosis is not good.”

Poland, too, which was also spared a high death toll this spring, registered a record of nearly 9,000 new cases. It is expanding training for nurses and planning new field hospitals. “We are on the brink of disaster,” the immunologist Pawel Grzesiowski said.

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In Belgium, which has Europe’s second-worst infection rate per capita, hospitals have been ordered to reserve a quarter of all their beds for Covid patients. “We can’t see the end of the tunnel,” said Renaud Mazy of the Saint-Luc clinics in Brussels.

And even Sweden, whose anti-lockdown approach was an international outlier, has raised the prospect of tougher restrictions. “Too many are not following the rules,” the prime minister, Stefan Löfven, said. “If there is no correction, we will have to tighten up.”

The stakes are certainly high. Bavaria’s outspoken governor, Markus Söder, said bluntly that “Europe’s prosperity is at stake”. But while it warned that without countermeasures daily coronavirus deaths in Europe could reach four or five times their April peak within months, the WHO said there was cause for some optimism.

“The pandemic today is not the pandemic yesterday – not only in terms of its transmission dynamic, but in the ways we are now equipped to face it,” Dr Hans Kluge, the organisation’s regional director for Europe, said on Thursday.

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Vastly increased testing capacities meant it was impossible to compare this week’s figures to those of March and April, Kluge noted, while higher transmission among younger, less vulnerable people, plus an improved ability to manage severe cases, meant mortality rates, while rising, were still relatively low.

Europe is recording two to three times more new daily infections compared with April, he said, but five times fewer deaths, while hospital admission numbers are taking two to three times longer to double than during the spring.

According to WHO models, quite simple measures – such as near-100% mask wearing, and strict limits on social gatherings – could save up to 281,000 lives across Europe by 1 February. “These may be pandemic times. But that need not necessarily mean dark times,” Kluge said.