For now, European leaders believe they can handle the second wave with the use of local lockdowns and large-scale testing.
(CN) — Europe is being shaken by a new wave of the coronavirus crisis with a surge of infections across the continent, throwing into confusion the reopening of schools and casting shadows over its politics and economies.
The worst-hit countries are Spain and France. Each is reporting thousands of new infections a day, a level similar to when both countries were in the midst of the darkest weeks of the pandemic during lockdowns in March and April.
Deaths caused by the virus, however, remain low and stable across Europe, in large part because those getting infected are younger, health experts say. Also, treatments for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, have improved and older and more vulnerable people are taking precautions against infection.
However, the number of patients needing treatment at intensive care units is rising in a few countries, according to a report from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Across the continent, restrictions are being imposed, including the quarantining of travelers, localized lockdowns and mask mandates. Hungary, Greece, Denmark and Finland have closed or restricted border crossings, and in turn frustrated the European Union’s principle of borderless travel.
The toughening restrictions also have sparked angry protests and led to confrontations between police and people violating mask orders, as happened on Wednesday when a man was forcefully removed by a police officer and pepper sprayed on a train in Liverpool when he refused to wear a mask. Video of the scuffle was widely watched.
But the wildest scenes were in Germany last Saturday when about 38,000 people – many affiliated with far-right extremist groups – took part in a demonstration against mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions. The demonstration turned chaotic after police tried to break up the protest because people weren’t wearing masks and made arrests. The demonstration ended with crowds seeking to storm the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building.
For now, European leaders are not talking about re-imposing nationwide lockdowns and believe they can handle this second wave with the use of local lockdowns, large-scale testing and restrictions.
“We managed to flatten the curve in a worse and more dramatic situation than this,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said last week during a news conference where he ruled out a nationwide lockdown. “I’m confident that we can do it again if each and every one of us acts responsibly.”
Increasingly, European leaders also are expressing hopes for the distribution of vaccines in the near future. The EU is signing contracts with drug makers to get hundreds of millions of vaccines when they are approved for general use.
On Wednesday, Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said he was hopeful the first vaccine doses will be available by the end of the year. On the same day, Xavier De Cuyper, the director general of Belgium’s Medicines Agency, said he expects the first vaccine doses in Belgium by March.
“Based on all the information I have, I dare to say that in March 2021 we could have a vaccine against Covid-19 in Belgium,” he told Het Laatste Nieuws. “It’s a realistic deadline.”
Globally, there is a race to develop vaccines. Russia and China are already pushing forward with vaccines they say are safe for general use. The United States is also telling public health agencies to get ready for a vaccine by the end of the year.
On Friday, the World Health Organization sought to dampen those expectations and said a safe and effective vaccine likely won’t be widely available until the middle of 2021.
“We have to be optimistic and realistic at the same time,” said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, during a news briefing. “So realistically speaking, probably the middle of 2021 – maybe the second quarter, the third quarter of 2021 – is when we can start seeing doses actually flowing into countries so they can start immunizing their populations.”
The surge in cases has been attributed to Europeans dropping their guard during summer vacations by mixing at parties, bars, homes and nightclubs.
On Friday, one of Europe’s most famous politicians, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, was taken to a hospital in Milan suffering from a lung infection after he contracted the virus, Italian media reported. Italian media reported that the 83-year-old billionaire and right-wing politician likely got infected after his wife, a member of his political party Forza Italia, vacationed on the island of Capri.
Neymar, the Brazilian soccer star who plays for Paris Saint- Germain club, and two other teammates reportedly tested positive this week after spending time at the vacation hot spot of Ibiza, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean Sea.
In the past month, new daily infections have soared in France from about 900 to more than 5,700, with the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region reporting more than 120 cases per 100,000 people, a rate considered extremely high. As a whole, about 105 people per 100,000 people in France are getting infected, according to data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Spain has been battling a resurgence of the virus for two months, reporting between more than 1,000 and more than 5,000 new cases each day since mid-July. Much of Spain, including the major cities of Madrid and Barcelona, is reporting a very high rate of new infections.
Infections are rising in many other countries too, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United Kingdom, according to the European health agency.
The pandemic has devastated Europe’s economies and the prospects for a quick recovery are slim, according to economists.
“We are seeing almost all economies losing steam now,” said Carsten Brzeski, the head of global economics at ING Group, a multinational Dutch bank and financial services company.
He said the economy of the so-called Eurozone, which is made up of the 19 EU countries using the euro currency, is expected to contract by 8% this year, while the U.S. economy is projected to shrink by 4% and China to register a meager growth of 0.7%.
Europe depends a lot on tourism and that has taken a major hit.
For example, Spain’s summer season was a disaster for its large tourism industry, which makes up about 12% of the Spanish economy. Spanish data shows that 16 million fewer foreign visitors came to the country this year, which translates to a loss of about $22.5 billion, according to EFE, a Spanish news agency, citing the national statistics institute.
The big uncertainty now facing Europe is what will happen as school children go back into classrooms.
School started for 12 million students in France on Tuesday and almost immediately some schools had to be closed due to infections. On Friday, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said 22 schools in France and its territories were closed due to Covid-19 cases.
French education officials said they are investigating about 250 incidents related to Covid-19 each day, according to AFP, a French news agency. Schools that report more than three coronavirus cases are being shut down temporarily, Blanquer said.
The reopening of schools in hard-hit Spain has been controversial and messy.
In Madrid, teachers and school staff were furious after they were told at the last moment that they needed to be tested for Covid-19. Spanish media reported that long lines formed as thousands of staff lined up to get tested. School starts next week in Spain.
But across Europe officials say getting back to school is essential, despite the risks. In Italy, to ease concerns, the government is handing out 11 million masks for free to schoolchildren and school staff. Italy, like other countries, is heatedly debating whether schoolchildren should be made to wear masks while in classrooms. For now, it will not be mandatory to wear a mask in Italian school rooms whenever physical distancing can be maintained, according to the government’s back-to-school plans.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.