(CN) — The World Health Organization on Monday urged Europe to take even more drastic steps to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus even as European leaders impose a raft of new restrictions that are sparking anger and protests in many cities.
In recent weeks, Europe has become the epicenter of the pandemic, a bitter reality for a continent that had brought its catastrophic outbreak in the spring under control by the summer. But with the virus spreading rapidly again, European governments are reimposing restrictions to prevent a new wave of sickness and death.
For now, deaths linked to the virus remain lower than in the spring, likely because older and more vulnerable people are not getting infected as widely as younger people. Also, health workers have become better at treating sick patients. But hospitalizations and deaths are creeping up in Europe.
Over the weekend, Italy became the latest country to seek to put a brake on the virus through tough measures. Under a new decree, bars and restaurants nationwide must close by 6 p.m. and people in some regions are being told to stay indoors from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
For now, only Ireland and the Czech Republic have imposed second nationwide lockdowns but curfews, bans on gatherings and other restrictions are in place across Europe. Second nationwide lockdowns are increasingly being considered in other nations too, though that extreme measure is seen as a last resort.
Even more will need to be done to get Europe's second wave of the virus under control, top WHO officials said during a news briefing on Monday at the United Nations health agency's Geneva headquarters.
“Right now we're well behind this virus in Europe,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of emergencies at WHO. “So getting ahead of it is going to take some serious acceleration in what we do.”
The agency did not offer specific recommendations for Europe, but its experts suggested border closings, national lockdowns and even more rigorous efforts at testing and tracking down potentially infected people are among the measures that may be needed.
“It may require shutting down and restricting movement and having stay-at-home orders in order to take the heat out of this phase of the pandemic,” Ryan said.
The past week saw the world's highest number of coronavirus infections yet and Europe accounted for about 46% of the new infections, WHO officials said. Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows that more than 3 million infections were detected worldwide in the past week and 40,557 deaths were linked to Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. The WHO said nearly a third of the deaths in the past week took place in its European region, which includes Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus region.
In recent days, protests against coronavirus measures have become more common across Europe.
Italy's new restrictions sparked violent scenes in Rome and Naples. Protests broke out in Naples, Italy's third-largest city and a place where poverty is widespread, when the city tried to enforce a nighttime curfew on Friday. Demonstrators chanted “freedom,” set fires and clashed with police.
Similar protests erupted in Rome over the weekend and protesters threw burning paper bombs at a prefecture in Catania, a city in Sicily. Taxi drivers in Turin also held a protest, demanding government aid with their business drying up due to the curfew. The Italian government is promising to reveal a new aid package this week.
Germany, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Belgium are among the other countries where protests against coronavirus restrictions have taken place.
Early Sunday, incendiary devices were thrown at Germany's national disease control center in Berlin, the Robert Koch Institute. Also, about 2,000 people on Sunday held a demonstration in Berlin, which has seen a series of protests against restrictions.
In London, police broke up demonstrations against Covid-19 mandates. The protest featured people carrying signs reading “freedom” and calling for an end to the “tyranny.” In Prague, protesters clashed with riot police riding horses and in armored vehicles. There are also peaceful protests, such as one in the Scottish city of Inverness over the weekend where small business owners decried their financial distress.
On Monday, the WHO appealed for patience, empathy and endurance to combat the pandemic.
“We understand the pandemic fatigue that people are feeling,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general. “It takes a mental and physical toll on everyone: Working from home; children being schooled remotely; not being able to celebrate milestones with friends and family; or not being there to mourn loved ones. It's tough and the fatigue is real.”
He added: “But we cannot give up. We must not give up.”
“No one wants more so-called lockdowns, but if we want to avoid them, we all have to play our part,” he said. “We must all make tradeoffs, compromise and sacrifices.”
Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief, vented his frustration over people not taking the pandemic seriously and even not believing the virus is causing disease. Conspiracy theories have sprung up around the world with a growing number of people questioning whether the virus is a risk.
“Our problem is and our challenge is that not everybody” is taking precautions and following the orders of health officials, he said.
“Not everyone accepts that is what needs to be done because they don't believe in this disease,” he said. “They don't believe that we have a pandemic in our hands. How can you convince someone to do something if they don't actually believe that there's a problem? It's truly impossible to think about this.”
Ryan added: “We need to convince people, we need to persuade people and persuasion is not about forcing – persuasion is a discussion.”
He said governments also need to do more to help people ordered to stay home.
“They need to be supported in quarantine; they need food; they need contact with family,” he said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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