As Deaths Slow, Parts of Europe Gingerly Reopen

Europe is focusing on how to deal with the economic fallout from the Covid-19 outbreak as the crisis becomes more manageable.

A security employee disinfects shopping carts at the entrance of a garden store in Munich, Germany, on Monday. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

(CN) – With the coronavirus pandemic coming under control in Europe, several countries are taking cautious steps to reopen stores, schools and public spaces while keeping a wary eye on a spike in new infections.

On Sunday, Europe’s death toll from the novel coronavirus passed 100,000, but the number of new infections and deaths is falling, a positive trend giving way to a gradual easing of lockdowns.

The hardest-hit countries, though, continue to report daily death counts in the hundreds. On Monday, Spain reported 399 more deaths, Italy 454 new deaths and the United Kingdom 449.

Still, only last week these countries were reporting more than 500 deaths each day. On Monday, Italy reported its first decline in the number of people with the infection since the outbreak started nearly two months ago. In Milan, a hospital celebrated a drop in Covid-19 patients allowing it to at last use one of its intensive care units for other types of patients.

With the health crisis becoming more manageable, hard-hit Europe is focusing on how to deal with the fallout from the economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic. This week, European Union leaders are expected to try to iron out differences over how to pay for a massive rescue package for businesses and individuals reeling from the lockdowns. Spain reportedly is expected to propose $1.6 trillion in aid needs to be made available.

The most immediate relief on offer is coming with the reopening of society, however gingerly the easing of restrictions may be.

On Monday, small stores, car and bicycle dealers and bookstores in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, were allowed to open for the first time in a month. Classes also resumed at some German schools with many students showing up wearing masks.

Still, many restrictions remain in place and Germans are being asked to continue avoiding physical contact, wash their hands regularly and in some German states people are required to wear face masks in stores.

“We stand at the beginning of the pandemic and are still a long way from being out of the woods,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Denmark, too, saw many businesses – including hair salons, tattoo parlors and dentists – reopen Monday. Austria lifted restrictions last week. Norway saw its kindergartens open their doors on Monday. The Czech Republic too has lifted restrictions.

In reopening, there are concerns that infections will spike again and force a renewal of lockdowns. This has been the experience of Singapore, a city-state praised for containing the virus in February and March through a system of extensive testing and tracking down people potentially carrying the virus. But in recent days Singapore has reported thousands of new cases. The new cases have been found among immigrant workers who live in cramped dormitories. Singapore has reported about 8,000 confirmed cases and 11 deaths.

“We still need to be on guard and we must absolutely remain vigilant,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, a World Health Organization epidemiologist, during a news conference on Monday.

She warned that lifting lockdowns too quickly could result in a resurgence of the virus. “It can take off again,” she said.

Van Kerkhove added that the first studies examining how many people may have been infected with the new virus shows that a small portion of a population in outbreak zones have developed antibodies. She cited the example of a study in Germany that found only 14% of people in a hard-hit area were found to be carrying antibodies.

This is an important piece of data because it gives an indication of how many people remain at risk of contracting the virus and becoming sick. Also, there are concerns that people who have developed antibodies may not be immune from being reinfected by the virus.

Poland may be among those reopening too quickly. On Monday, the government eased restrictions on shops, churches and parks one day after it reported a record number of new infections.

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union

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