Europeans are letting their guard down despite experts and leaders sounding the alarm about a potential resurgence of the new coronavirus.
(CN) — Tangles of young people partying at illegal all-night raves on hidden beaches, in forests and deep inside major cities. Waves of soccer fans taking to the streets to celebrate championship titles. People swarming beaches and crowding together under beach umbrellas.
This is the unsettling picture emerging in Europe driving health experts and public authorities to despair and fueling alarm about a resurgence of coronavirus infections as restrictions are eased and people ignore rules meant to keep the virus in check. Instead, as the pandemic recedes, people across Europe are letting their guard down and discarding masks, hugging and kissing again and enjoying summer parties.
But by Friday, Italy joined Germany and Portugal in fighting new clusters of infection. Earlier in the week, Germany imposed restrictions on two areas in North Rhine-Westphalia after about 1,500 low-paid migrant workers at Germany’s largest meat factory tested positive. Portuguese officials are clamping down in parts of Lisbon due to an uptick of cases there. Portugal is reporting about 275 new cases a day.
In Italy, a cluster of more than 50 infections were discovered in an abandoned housing district in the southern region of Campania near Naples. Almost all the infections were found among a community of migrant Bulgarian workers who do seasonal harvest work. Media reports said all the cases were asymptomatic.
A decision to place the housing blocks in Mondragone under quarantine led to protests on Thursday by the Bulgarian migrants and subsequently clashes with Italian residents. Police and the military were called in to restore order.
Italy is also trying to contain another cluster of cases found among workers at a large delivery company in Bologna. So far, 47 employees at Bartolini Corriere Espresso and 17 others have been found infected.
The hope is that extensive testing, quick action and targeted quarantines can control the spread of the virus. This strategy appears to be working in China where a recent outbreak in Beijing seems to be under control. On Friday, only 11 new cases were reported in Beijing.
China, Vietnam and South Korea have kept the virus in check from the beginning of its emergence last December through rigorous testing, quarantines, local lockdowns and tracking down people who came into contact with an infected person.
Health experts say such measures are needed to contain the virus until vaccines are available. On Friday, the World Health Organization said a global initiative to speed up the development and production of coronavirus tests, vaccines and treatments will require more than $30 billion over the next year.
For now, it appears that the outbreaks in Europe can be contained, officials said. In Paris, to prevent outbreaks, authorities are moving ahead was with an experiment to conduct 1.3 million tests to find any “hidden clusters.”
“There’s no reason to be alarmed because this was highly expected,” said Dr. Ranieri Guerra, an assistant director at the World Health Organization, on RAI, Italy’s state broadcaster. “It was inevitable that there would be hot spots in Italy and Europe.”
More worrisome, he said, is a possibility for the virus to hit even harder in the autumn. He likened this pandemic to the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918-1919. Back then, the flu became less virulent in the hotter summer months after the first wave of sickness to only resurface with a vengeance in the autumn. More people succumbed in the second wave of that outbreak when an estimated 50 million people died, he said.
He dismissed as untrue statements by Italian doctors and experts that the virus appears to have weakened through mutations. He said the genome of the virus remains similar to when it emerged and poses a major risk of hitting hard as the weather turns chilly.
For now, the big question is whether the virus may surge back even before the colder months as people ignore warnings to maintain a distance from each other and come together in gatherings big and small.
On Thursday, after a heat wave struck Great Britain, thousands of people flocked to the beaches of Bournemouth, a resort town in southern England. The United Kingdom is coming out of a strict lockdown and struggling to contain Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak. Critics of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson blame his decision to delay a lockdown on the high number of deaths. The U.K. has recorded more than 43,000 deaths, including 149 on Thursday.
Scenes of gridlocked roads and beachgoers crowded under umbrellas quickly became a national embarrassment, prompting Bournemouth to declare the flock of people a major incident.
A local council leader, Vikki Slade, said she was “absolutely appalled at the scenes witnessed on our beaches.”
“The irresponsible behavior and actions of so many people is just shocking,” she said, “and our services are stretched to the absolute hilt trying to keep everyone safe.”
By Friday, there were reports of overnight violence, including three stabbings. Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, threatened to close down beaches unless people acted responsibly.
British authorities are also despairing over other large gatherings.
On Thursday, thousands of soccer fans celebrated late into the night after Liverpool won its first Premier League title in 30 years.
“People believe, wrongly, that we’re over the worst of the pandemic,” Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson told the BBC. “In the euphoria… people have decided to ignore advice [to stay at home], but it’s gone, it’s happened. We’ll have to see whether there’s a spike in coronavirus as a result of this.”
Similarly, in mid-June thousands of fans gathered in the streets of Naples to celebrate their city’s soccer team victory in the Italian Cup final over superpower Juventus.
Guerra, the WHO assistant-director, called the celebrations “reckless” and recalled how celebrations in February after the northern Italian soccer team Atalanta beat Spain’s Valencia team was linked to a catastrophic outbreak of disease in northern Italy.
Police in Britain, Germany, France, Portugal and elsewhere are also cracking down on illegal parties, in particular raves, popping up and drawing young people eager to enjoy the summer and socialize after months of lockdowns. One party in Portugal took place on a hidden beach outside Lisbon.
In London, police have been attacked trying to disperse large raves. On Wednesday, one such incident left 22 police injured. Partygoers have clashed with police in France and Germany too.
“We’ve seen large numbers of people completely flouting the health regulations, seeming not to care at all about their own or their families’ health, wanting to have large parties,” London Police Chief Cressida Dick said, according to Reuters. “It’s hot, some people have drunk far too much, some people are just angry and aggressive and some are just plain violent.”
On Thursday, Dr. Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe and Central Asia, warned that many countries in his region are recording an uptick in cases for the first time in months. The WHO’s Europe region covers 54 countries that extend all the way to Central Asia and the Middle East. In the region, the pandemic is accelerating in 11 countries, among them Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and North Macedonia. Kluge warned that the “accelerated transmission” could “push health systems to the brink.”
Ukraine, with its 44 million inhabitants, is becoming a new major country experiencing a surge in cases. On Friday, Ukraine reported 1,109 new infections, its highest daily load yet. So far, 1,086 deaths in Ukraine have been linked to Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Officials are warning they will reimpose a lockdown unless people stop flouting restrictions.
“If we want to preserve the economy and not quarantine the country, the only way is to adhere to restrictions together,” Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmygal, said on social media. “We have entered a serious wave.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.