(CN) — The novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc again in Europe and its rapid spread is forcing countries to impose curfews, close down nightlife in cities like Paris, Barcelona and Prague and prepare for a wave of sick patients.
European leaders are scrambling to prevent a repeat of the nightmare that descended on the continent in the spring and led to national lockdowns that shut down societies and caused massive economic and societal damage.
As of Thursday, the European Parliament was shutting its doors, Paris turning the lights off on its vibrant nightlife, London was restricting people from different households from gathering inside homes and Barcelona was closing its bars, restaurants and cafeterias for two weeks.
“Daily numbers of cases are up, hospital admissions are up and Covid is now the fifth-leading cause of death and the bar of a 1,000 deaths per day has now been reached,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization regional director for Europe, during a news briefing on Thursday.
In only 10 days, the WHO’s European region, which is made up of 53 nations including Russia and states in the Caucasus, registered 1 million new infections, he said. On average, there are about 700,000 new infections detected each week, the highest level since the pandemic was declared in March. On both Friday and Saturday last week more than 120,000 new cases were recorded, new one-day records for Europe.
Despite the alarming trends, Kluge said national lockdowns need to be avoided. For that to happen, he said governments and the general public must take quick action, which should include wearing masks, limiting contact between people and stepping up testing, quarantines and tracing down potential carriers.
“This is more than ever pandemic times for Europe. But pandemic times do not necessarily mean dark times,” he said. “Does it mean we are back to mid-March? No, we are not.”
He said the “proportional and targeted response” being taken by European governments “is the way forward.”
“They are absolutely necessary,” he said. “These measures are meant to keep us all ahead of the curve and to flatten its course.”
He said national lockdowns such as those enacted in March when borders were closed and schools, businesses and churches were shut can be avoided if governments and people take the right steps.
“In March, lockdown was the default option because we were caught off guard,” he said. He called such indefinite lockdowns “not sustainable.”
“Today lockdown means a very different thing: It means a step-by-step escalation of proportionate, targeted and time-limited measures,” he said. “We will have to live with the virus still for a while so it is finding this balance.”
He said the collateral damage caused by the national lockdowns was profound to peoples’ health, the economy and society. For example, cancer and heart checkups and surgeries fell by the wayside, students drifted in their studies, depression and physical abuse increased and economies spiraled into a deep slump.
The steep rise in Covid-19 cases in Europe is due to more testing and the virus’s rapid spread in younger and less vulnerable populations. In September, about 4 million Europeans were tested each week, more than double the number sampled for the virus during the spring outbreak.
For now, not nearly as many Europeans are being hospitalized as compared to the first wave, said Katie Smallwood, a senior WHO healthy emergency official. She said hospitalizations are presently less than 25% of what they were in the spring.
But she said the health data is going in the wrong direction.
“The trend is going up, week by week,” she said. “What we already see is that in some cities across Europe that hospitals are coming under strain, that intensive care units are again coming to be more than 90% occupied and the greatest proportion of patients within those intensive care units are increasingly Covid- 19 cases.”
The biggest concern is that as winter approaches the virus will begin spreading among older and more vulnerable populations.
Kluge said there is a “realistic potential to worsen drastically if the disease spreads back into older age cohorts after more indoor social contacts across generations.”
Kluge said that models predict that the number of fatalities caused by the virus will exceed the death toll from the first wave. By the beginning of June when deaths were declining in Europe, the virus was linked to the deaths of more than 180,000 people. To date, about 246,700 in Europe have died, according to WHO data.
He said models suggest 281,000 deaths in Europe can be prevented by the end of January if 95% of the population wears a mask and people don’t mingle in public and private spaces. Presently, less than 60% of Europeans are regularly wearing masks, he said.
“These projections nothing but confirm what we’ve always said: the pandemic won’t reverse its course on its own, but we will,” he said.
He said that the virus also has proven to be “merciless” when “there was delay, partisanship, disinformation or denial” in dealing with the threat of the virus.
“So a lot is in our hands, in the hands of government, in the hands of the people,” he said.
He acknowledged that many people are suffering “pandemic fatigue” and are unwilling to follow the safety guidelines. He said a recent survey of 27 European nations found about 60% of respondents were “really tired, fatigued of the restrictive measures.” He said this fatigue “maybe is the No. 1 challenge that we are facing today.”
To overcome the hurdle, he said people need to find new ways to be happy and social and that government leaders need to show empathy. He praised French President Emmanuel Macron who acknowledged during a Wednesday evening speech announcing new restrictions how difficult it is “to be 20 in the year 2020.”
In his televised remarks, Marcon announced a six-week curfew between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. in Paris and other cities. Under the curfew, bars, restaurants and theaters are closing during the night. Germany too is looking at imposing curfews in places with high rates of infection and closing nightlife spots. The Netherlands also announced restrictions on alcohol sales and limited travel to neighboring Belgium, a virus hot spot.
In Spain, the Catalonia region is joining Madrid in shutting down parts of society. In Catalonia, which has Barcelona as its capital, bars, cafeterias and restaurants are closing their doors for two weeks and will only be able to offer take-away menus. Gyms and shopping centers will need to cut down on the number of clients and classes are going online at universities.
In the Czech Republic, which is registering the highest rate of infections in the European Union, bars, restaurants and nightclubs have been ordered closed until at least Nov. 3 and schools have been shifted to online classes.
In Portugal, outside gatherings of more than five people have been banned and a raft of restrictions are in place in the United Kingdom. At midnight Friday, a ban on households mixing indoors goes into effect in London. Italy has ordered people to wear masks while outdoors and banned parties and casual pick-up sporting matches.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.