Europeans are worried about a resurgence of the Covid-19 disease as restrictions are slowly lifted.
(CN) — France, the United Kingdom and Russia became the latest European countries to ease restrictions on Monday and allow citizens more freedoms, but concerns are growing that the stage is being set for a spike in new infections as people go back to work, see friends again and return to everyday activities.
Germany, one of the first countries to ease restrictions in March and April as it succeeded to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, is being closely watched because it is reporting a worrying increase in new infections.
On Monday, Germany’s center for disease control, the Robert Koch Institute, reported another rise in new infections, bringing the infection rate slightly above a level considered safe to ease restrictions. Between Sunday and Monday, it reported more than 1,000 new infections spread out across Germany, suggesting the disease was spreading at a rate where exponential growth is possible. New outbreaks have been reported in meat processing plants in three German states and in six nursing homes.
The worries in Europe over a resurgence of the Covid-19 disease mirror concerns in other parts of the world where lockdowns have been eased.
China reported six new cases on Sunday and Monday in Wuhan, the industrial city where the virus first emerged in December. The discovery of new cases in Wuhan comes little more than a month after the city ended a strict lockdown and began reporting no new cases. In South Korea, 85 cases were linked to a single nightclub customer, prompting authorities there to postpone school reopenings meant to start this week and shut down nightclubs and bars.
The hope is that Europe is much better prepared now than it was at the beginning of the outbreak to handle the virus because people are taking precautions to avoid physical contact and fastidiously cleaning their hands and public places; health workers are better equipped to treat victims and protect themselves; and governments are doing more testing and tracking to find potential carriers. Also, borders remain closed, mass gatherings are banned across Europe, travel is limited and there is no tourism to speak of almost anywhere.
“Those countries who are exiting more stringent public social measures, so-called lockdowns, may do better and may avoid second waves if they can shut down clusters early,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, during a news briefing Monday.
Despite measures to stop the virus, it is also possible Covid-19 will continue to spread, causing outbreaks and deaths for weeks and months to come, leaving governments and people on edge and causing further economic damage.
“If a disease persists in countries at a low level then there is always a risk of a disease taking off again,” Ryan said.
But he lauded South Korea and Germany for finding new cases. He said they “shouldn’t be criticized for looking, for finding, for being alert.”
“The virus is still here even when we lift lockdowns,” he said, adding that WHO was confident Germany and South Korea will “suppress clusters.”
“Shutting your eyes and trying to drive through this blind is about as silly an analogy I can find and it seems that some countries are driving through this blind,” Ryan said.
The next few weeks may provide answers to questions about whether societies can return from lockdowns without risking new outbreaks. The onus, officials say, is on people being careful.
“The virus hasn’t changed. It has the same characteristics and the same pattern of transmission” as before, said Silvio Brusaferro, the head of Italy’s health institute. “So, violating the rules that prevent infection allows it to spread.”
Brusaferro said it was too early to know whether easing the lockdown is leading to an increase in infections but that scientists will have a much better idea in a week.
It may take a long time to discover new outbreaks because many people infected with the virus never show symptoms and it can take up to two weeks for symptoms to become apparent, scientists say. The vast majority of infected people have mild or moderate forms of disease, but about 5% develop serious conditions, the WHO says.
Globally, over 4.1 million cases of Covid-19 have been found and more than 284,000 deaths have been linked to the disease. The majority of those dying are older people with underlying health conditions.
Europe is now faced with uncertainty as it leaves lockdowns.
For example, Italy eased restrictions a week ago, ending nearly two months of a national lockdown. A week later, it’s now common to find people skirting the rules as children play together, friends meet, people bump into each other in cafes and stores and families gather for weekend lunches.
Plenty of Italians, as elsewhere, are being fined for violating rules limiting travel and a variety of activities. In the past week, Italian authorities slapped fines on about 17,000 people for violating the slimmed-down containment rules and forced about 200 businesses to shut down for disobeying rules. Since the lockdown began, tens of thousands of fines have been issued in Italy.
Governments also are coming under fire for potentially allowing the virus to surge again as they push to reopen economies.
That’s the case in the United Kingdom, which continues to report hundreds of new deaths each day and thousands of new infections. The U.K. now has the highest death toll in Europe and the second-highest in the world at more than 32,000.
On Sunday evening, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people who can’t work from home to return to work at places allowed to operate, such as construction sites and manufacturing facilities.
Sure enough, commuters were seen packing into subway cars in London by Monday morning and many were not wearing masks. In other countries, including Italy and France, it is now obligatory to wear a mask on public transit. The fear is that someone with the virus can easily spread it in a confined space such as a subway car.
“I am nervous about going back because I have a family and they have been isolating since the start. I feel like I am now putting them at risk,” Peter Osu, a 45-year-old construction worker, told Metro, a London newspaper. He said commuters were close to each other on the subway train.
“This is the first day, can you imagine what it’s going to look like by the end of the week?” he added.
Besides telling workers to return to work, Johnson gave the green light to travel far from home, sunbathe and play sports with members of the same household. He also said schools and businesses are on track to open June 1 and that pubs and other public places may reopen by July.
But his guidelines caused confusion and anger. Leaders in Scotland and Wales dismissed the guidelines and said stringent lockdowns are going to remain in effect in their regions.
“The country was looking for clarity and consensus but the prime minister’s statements have raised more questions than answers,” said Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader.
In France, too, the lifting of restrictions after a 54-day lockdown brought both relief and unease. French media showed images of some crowded trains in Paris as people went back to work.
France and the United Kingdom are telling people to limit contact and bars and restaurants remain closed. Paris has turned some streets into bicycle lanes to encourage people to move by bicycle rather than public transit.
“There is no doubt that the infection rate will rise again,” Bruno Bonnell, a parliamentarian with French President Emmanuel Macron’s political party, told Euronews, a Brussels-based broadcaster. “When you put people together, we will start again to have this contamination.”
But he said it was necessary to reopen the economy.
“It’s a balance: We can’t lock the country for [longer], we have to restart the economy but in doing this, we are taking a risk,” he said. “People have to be responsible.”
Russia too is easing restrictions even though it is in the midst of a severe outbreak. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said a nationwide “non-working” period will end on Tuesday. Mass gatherings will remain banned and other restrictions will apply.
“But the fight with the epidemic isn’t ending, its threat remains even in territories where the situation is relatively safe,” Putin said in a televised speech.
The reopening of Russia’s economy takes place while it is reporting more than 10,000 new infections each day. Russia has reported 221,344 confirmed cases – the third-highest in the world – and said 2,009 have people have died from Covid-19.
As in the United States, Europe is facing public unrest over lockdown measures, even in places where they have been scaled back. In Germany, thousands of people in Munich, Stuttgart and Berlin protested restrictions on their personal liberties over the weekend.
Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster, said protesters accused politicians and medical workers of spreading panic. It said many protesters were also anti-vaccination activists.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.