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Europe Becomes Coronavirus Epicenter Once Again

Europe is once again the pandemic's epicenter and from Lisbon to Moscow the story is largely the same: Infections are rising and nations are responding with new restrictions.

(CN) — In Ireland, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the nation back into a second national lockdown. In France, a nighttime curfew has been extended over much of the country. In Italy, a curfew over Milan has turned an economic capital into a ghost town at night as the virus surges again.

Europe is once again the pandemic's epicenter and from Lisbon to Moscow the story is largely the same: Infections are rising and nations are responding with new restrictions that include curfews, closing bars and restaurants, shutting sporting events and gyms and curtailing gatherings such as weddings and parties. At the same time, more and more people are being tested for the virus and found to be infected.

This second wave of the deadly virus is also deepening economic and political troubles already besetting Europe after it was struck with a catastrophic outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the spring. Europe's economies are gasping for life as unemployment rises and fatigue and anger set in over restrictions that seem poised to last for weeks if not months.

“We are at a critical juncture in this pandemic, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, on Friday during a news briefing at the agency's Geneva headquarters. “The next few months are going to be very tough and some countries are on a dangerous track.”

Considering it's only October with the influenza season about to begin, WHO officials said Europe and North America need to step up efforts to prevent the virus from spreading.

“Too many countries are seeing an exponential increase in cases and that's now leading to hospitals and ICUs [intensive care units] running close or above capacity and we're still only in October,” Tedros said. “We urge leaders to take immediate action to prevent further unnecessary deaths, essential health services from collapsing and schools shutting again.”

Over the past week, Europe reported nearly 1 million new infections, the most of any region in the world, and it has begun to report more than 200,000 new cases a day, a record.

Deaths are rising too in Europe, though slowly for now. In its latest weekly report on Covid-19, the WHO said Europe reported 8,386 more deaths linked to the virus, or about 23% of the world's weekly death toll of 36,547. In the spring, Europe was seeing twice as many deaths per day.

People are ordered to wear face masks in front of the famous Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. The city exceeded the important warning level of 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in seven days. More and more German cities become official high risk corona hotspots with travel restrictions within Germany. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

“While the numbers [of infections] are extremely high, we are lucky the deaths have not immediately tracked that,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief. Health officials say the majority of those testing positive are younger and less vulnerable people.

The total death toll worldwide stands at 1.14 million. Outside of Europe, the United States, Brazil, India, Argentina, Mexico and Iran continue to report high infection numbers and deaths.

In Europe, France is reporting the highest caseload of infections. On Thursday, it reported more than 41,000 new cases, by far the most in Europe. To curb the virus's spread, about 46 million of its 67 million citizens are being placed under a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew starting at midnight Friday. On Thursday, France recorded 162 more deaths linked to the virus, bringing its total death toll to about 34,210, one of Europe's highest death tallies.

“A second wave of the coronavirus epidemic is now under way in France and Europe. The situation is very serious,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex said. “The coming weeks will be hard and the number of deaths will continue to rise.”

On Wednesday, Ireland took the drastic step to become the first European nation to impose a new six-week national lockdown to prevent the virus from spreading out of control. Ireland is recording about 1,000 new infections a day, making it one of Europe's less-infected nations. For a comparison, its infection rate stands at about 293 for every 100,000 people while in France about 488 people out of every 100,000 are getting infected, according to European Center for Disease Prevention and Control data.

Irish were told to not stray beyond 3 miles from their homes and to not visit others in their homes. Also, most retail shops were ordered to close, though supermarkets and other businesses deemed essential were allowed to remain open. Schools and construction sites were allowed to stay open too.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin called it “Europe's strictest regime.”

“I feel very personally and profoundly the sense of disappointment, the feelings of loneliness, perhaps even the despair that this announcement will bring for many,” Martin said. “The days are getting shorter and colder. But I ask you to remember this: that even as the winter comes in, there is hope and there is light.”

The European nations with the highest rates of infection are Belgium and the Czech Republic. In Belgium, 1,019 per 100,000 people are being infected and in the Czech Republic that number stands at 1,148 per 100,000 people.

In Belgium, officials are contemplating tougher restrictions and perhaps a national lockdown, a step some Belgian virologists are calling for. So far, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo appears unwilling to impose a new lockdown. Generally, European politicians, even those on the left of the political spectrum, are opposed to national lockdowns and say targeted restrictions and containment measures will suffice. A major concern is that new lockdowns will badly damage the economy.

A woman, wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, walks along Cinquantenaire park in an autumn day in Brussels, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo stopped short Friday of imposing another full lockdown, as the country did in March, but introduced a series of new restrictive measures as the number of COVID-19 related hospital admissions and deaths continue to soar. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

High-level officials are contracting the virus too. In Belgium, Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes was in intensive care after testing positive following a meeting with other foreign ministers. The 45-year-old politician reportedly was in stable condition. Germany's health minister, Jens Spahn, also has tested positive and reportedly has mild symptoms. Spahn, who has been seen as a potential successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been praised for his handling of the pandemic. Austria's foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, has also tested positive. 

This second wave puts at risk the European Union's economic recovery from the devastating first wave in the spring that brought societies to a standstill. The lockdowns led to the deepest recession on record in Europe and left tens of thousands of people unemployed.

Economists are warning that the recovery in the euro zone, which is made up of those EU nations that use the euro currency, may be severely damaged if the virus forces economies to shut down again.

“From here on, the path for the economy is highly uncertain,” said ING Bank analysts in a briefing note on Friday. “With cases continuing to rise at a worrying pace, more restrictive measures in the eurozone definitely cannot be ruled out.”

Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief, said Europe's second wave shows that nations everywhere are at risk of seeing the virus strike again.

“No country is out of the woods and what we've learned certainly in the Northern Hemisphere is that second waves are not only possible but highly likely anywhere in the world,” Ryan said. “Those who have been hit hard the first time around can get hit hard a second time around and those who got hit with a glancing blow in the first can get a harder blow in the second.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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