(CN) – After weeks of lockdowns, the wave of death caused by the coronavirus pandemic is slowing in Spain, France and Italy, Europe’s hardest-hit countries, and the debate is turning to how and when restrictions can be eased.
On Sunday, the daily death toll in Italy dropped to slightly more than 500 fatalities, its lowest number of deaths in two weeks, though it reported 636 new deaths Monday evening. Spain too is seeing its fatalities fall. On Monday, Spain reported 637 new deaths, a big drop from four days ago when it recorded 950 deaths in a single day. France and Germany also are seeing signs of a slowdown.
Still, it’s far too early to say the outbreak is under control and, despite the growing optimism, the daily death counts in the worst-hit countries remain extremely high and the spread of the virus continues. More than 50,000 people have died in Europe from the pandemic, according to official data. But the toll is likely much higher because many deaths in homes and nursing facilities have not been classified as caused by the virus because the victims are not tested.
Also, there are places in Europe, such as Romania, the United Kingdom and Russia, where the worst may still be coming. There are also concerns that countries like the Netherlands and Sweden, where restrictions have not been as harsh, may have set themselves up for outbreaks.
On Monday, Sweden appeared ready to impose restrictions to contain an outbreak of the virus. Sweden has been an exception in Europe and kept schools, restaurants, bars and businesses open. On Sunday evening, Carl XVI, the king of Sweden, told Swedes to stay home and on Monday the government said it wanted to be given emergency powers to contain the virus. So far, 477 people have died in Sweden, a much higher number than its Nordic neighbors where restrictions were imposed.
The growing crisis in the U.K. was underscored by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson being admitted to a hospital on Sunday because he was suffering from persistent symptoms after contracting the virus. On Monday, Johnson’s condition worsened and he was moved into intensive care. Also on Sunday, Queen Elizabeth II spoke to the nation and comforted Brits in a rare televised speech by thanking those fighting the virus and promising Brits “better days will return.”
On Monday, the U.K. announced the death of 439 more people, bringing its total to 5,373. By comparison, in Italy 16,523 people have died, in Spain there have 13,169 fatalities and in France 8,911, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, the virus has caused the deaths of more than 72,600 people and infected more than 1.3 million people.
There’s an urgency to lift restrictions and get economies going again as Europe sinks into a recession and European leaders quarrel over how to pay for the tremendous costs the pandemic is causing. The hardest-hit nations of the European Union are upset that Germany and the Netherlands have resisted calls for EU-wide financing to help those afflicted and divisions so big have opened up they threaten the very foundations of the EU.
On Monday, Austria became the first country to announce it will be easing restrictions after Easter. Austria has not been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, reporting 220 deaths and more than 12,200 confirmed cases of infection. The Czech Republic said it too was looking at releasing people from lockdown. Denmark on Monday said it will reopen some schools after Easter.
Experts warn that lifting restrictions too early and without rigorous methods to prevent the virus from spreading could trigger new outbreaks, a risk that is weighing on European leaders.
On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “way too soon to start loosening any of the strict rules we have imposed on ourselves.”
She said on her weekly podcast that it would be like going “from the frying pan into the fire – medically, economically, socially” to lift the restrictions too early.
Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergency programs at the World Health Organization, said on Friday that countries need to aggressively track down and isolate people who may be carrying the virus after they lift restrictions.
“Many countries around the world have been climbing a very tragic and dangerous mountain of disease and we have to be very careful on the descent,” he said during a news conference on Friday. “We don’t want to end up in a cycle of lockdown followed by release followed by lockdown.”
Experts and national governments in Europe are debating how to handle this next phase in the pandemic and prevent future outbreaks.
Some experts are advocating widespread testing to both track down who may be carrying the virus without knowing it and to know who may have built up immunity to it. Some are saying those people considered immune could be allowed to return to work and be granted what’s being called “immunity passports.” Another tool under consideration is the introduction of smartphone apps to better track infected people. Germany is looking at an app that alerts people if they are close to someone who has been infected with the virus.
What seems certain is that many containment measures will remain in effect until the threat of the virus is over. These measures likely will include closed borders, obligatory mask wearing, social distancing and bans on large gatherings.
In announcing its plans to lift restrictions, Austria said it will require people to wear masks when they enter supermarkets and use public transport. Similar requirements are being put into effect in a growing number of places, including the German city of Jena, the Italian mountain region of Valle d’Aosta and the Italian city of Treviso. Across the globe, a scientific debate has erupted over the benefits of obligatory mask wearing in public and more governments are now considering forcing people to adopt masks.
The World Health Organization, the Geneva-based global health agency directing efforts to fight the pandemic, has come under pressure to encourage the wearing of masks. The agency has said masks should be worn by people who are sick and those treating people sick with the disease, known as Covid-19. But it advises against wearing masks for others, saying a worldwide shortage of surgical masks makes it essential that masks are left for medical workers.
On Monday, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said his agency was studying the debate over masks, but maintained that “medical masks must be prioritized for health workers on the front lines.” He said the shortage of masks is putting medical workers in danger.
“Masks alone cannot stop the pandemic,” he said.
Austria’s reopening strategy lays out what other countries may do too.
On Monday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said nonessential stores will be allowed to reopen after Easter but that they must follow strict hygiene requirements. He said all stores will be allowed to reopen on May 1 and that restaurants and hotels would not reopen before mid-May. Austrian schools will remain closed until at least mid-May and large gatherings will be banned until the end of June.
Kurz said social distancing requirements will remain in effect until at least the end of April. Under these measures, Austrians will be allowed to leave their homes only for certain crucial activities, such as work, shopping and exercise.
The Czech government, meanwhile, is considering allowing nonessential businesses to reopen as early as Thursday, but under orders to follow strict hygiene rules.
The Czech government says it wants to carry out a “smart quarantine” system that tracks people who have tested positive and find new people who may become infected due to contact with those already infected. The rate of infection in the Czech Republic has declined too.
The hardest-hit countries are looking at how to ease restrictions and re-emerge from a crisis that has crippled their economies and brought their societies to a standstill.
In Spain, the government is looking at widescale testing to find people who are infected with the virus but not displaying symptoms. It is also mulling requirements for masks.
“We are preparing ourselves for de-escalation for which it is important to know who is contaminated to be able to gradually lift Spanish citizens’ lockdown,” Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez told TV station Antena 3.
Italy is eager to ease restrictions on its citizens, who have been under a nationwide lockdown since March 10, the longest in Europe.
“The curve has started its descent and the number of deaths has started to drop,” said Silvio Brusaferro, a top Italian health official, on Sunday. He said the decline in deaths and infections allows Italy to begin considering lifting restrictions.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.