(CN) — With the global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic nearing 1 million, Europe is once again becoming a hotspot as several European nations report thousands of new infections each day.
By Friday, about 989,000 deaths worldwide had been linked to Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. With more than 5,000 deaths reported each day, the world is set to reach the grim milestone of 1 million deaths by early next week.
At a Friday news briefing, a top World Health Organization official said it isn’t unrealistic that another million people could die in the pandemic.
“It’s certainly unimaginable but it’s not impossible because if we look at losing a million people in nine months and we just look at the realities of getting vaccine out there in the next nine months, it’s a big task for everyone involved,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO chief for emergencies.
But he stressed governments and citizens can “drive transmission down,” save lives and prevent the death toll from doubling. The WHO is urging nations to take a comprehensive approach in combating the virus, which includes frequent hand washing, physical distancing, rigorous testing, quarantines and better treatment of sick patients.
The resurgence of infections in Europe is a cruel reminder of just how contagious and pernicious the virus is even on a continent where many of the steps meant to drive down transmission have been taken. At the start of summer, there was hope Europe had its outbreaks under control, but after a summer when many Europeans let down their guard and went on vacation the virus is making a strong comeback.
“It’s getting tough again,” said Roberto Speranza, the Italian health minister, after a conference with other European health ministers on Thursday. “The situation in Europe is serious and it can’t be taken lightly. The numbers of contagion have grown constantly in the past few weeks.”
It’s an uneasy moment with Europe in danger of heading right back to where it was last spring during its darkest days of the pandemic. For now, the surge in infections has not led to a wave of serious sickness and death, but health experts warn that is likely to take place without new restrictions and as Europe heads into the flu season and colder months.
Spain is in the midst of Europe’s worst outbreak. It’s been reporting high caseloads since early August, ranging from more than 3,000 to more than 11,000 new cases a day. Lockdowns are in effect in parts of the country. On Thursday, it reported more than 10,000 new infections. It’s also seen an increase in deaths. Since Monday, more than 500 people have died from the virus.
In Madrid, with hospitals under strain as the number of virus patients swells, workers are racing to build a new infectious disease hospital to handle 1,000 patients. The government is also preparing to use field hospitals.
On Friday, the United Kingdom reported 6,634 new Covid-19 cases, its highest caseload since April. A day earlier, France set a record for new cases: 16,096 new infections. French Prime Minister Jean Castex warned that a new national lockdown may be needed. “You don’t play around with a pandemic,” he told France 2, a French broadcaster.
Reactions to Europe’s response are mixed. In places, many feel let down by government measures. For example, in Greece, scores of students have walked out of classes to protest back-to-school orders, complaining of poorly ventilated and overcrowded classrooms. In Madrid, health workers staged a protest against unsafe working conditions.
Conversely, many see the restrictions as going too far and there have been protests in the U.K., Spain, Germany and elsewhere against mask mandates and lockdowns. In a new twist, several young Dutch celebrities, including model and rapper Famke Louise, caused a stir after saying they would no longer obey restrictions.
Across Europe, new restrictions are being imposed. In the U.K., the government is slapping stiff fines on people violating its tough rules, such as a ban on mixing between families in parts of England. In France, bars and restaurants have been ordered to close in Marseille and to shut by 10 pm in Paris. In Germany, Oktoberfest isn’t as boisterous this year after gatherings of more than five people were banned.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control says infections have steadily increased in Europe since August. The European Union health agency says increased testing and intense transmission between younger people explain the uptick in infections. For now, most of the newly infected people are asymptomatic or suffering only mild cases. But the health agency warns more older people are getting infected and beginning to drive up the number of serious cases. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 220,000 people have died in Europe, including about 20,000 in Russia.
With infections rising in Europe, there is a new debate over whether national lockdowns may be needed. The WHO said national lockdowns should not be seen as the solution.
“National lockdowns are almost a last resort and to think that we’re back in last resort territory in September, at the beginning of the autumn, I think is something that is a pretty sobering thought,” said Ryan, the WHO emergency chief. “Have we really exhausted all of the tools? So we’re back to lockdowns as the solution?”
The pandemic is showing few signs of burning out quickly elsewhere in the world.
For several weeks, India has recorded the highest daily death tolls in the world. Since the start of September, it has reported more than 1,000 fatalities a day and by Friday India’s health ministry said 92,290 people had died from the virus. India is also doing a record number of tests with about 1.5 million samples reported on Thursday. After more than 68 million tests, India has detected more than 5.8 million infections, the second highest in the world after the United States’ 7.1 million cases.
The U.S. also has the highest death toll, surpassing 200,000 this week. Deaths in the U.S. have declined but remain stubbornly high with 942 new deaths reported Thursday and 1,115 Wednesday.
After the U.S., Brazil is the next worst hit nation with nearly 140,000 deaths in all. On average, more than 690 people continue to die each day in Brazil from the virus. On Thursday, organizers of the spectacular Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro said they were postponing the event because of the pandemic.
The disease is raging in many other parts of the world too.
In the Americas, Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Colombia are among the nations reporting the most cases anywhere in the world. Argentina is now a new hotspot after reporting a steady rise in cases throughout the summer. For most of September, it has reported more than 10,000 new infections a day. About 14,800 people have died in Argentina. In all, the Americas have reported more than 544,800 deaths, making it by far the hardest-hit part of the world.
In Asia, Israel, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq are among the countries reporting high numbers of infections and deaths. Israel has imposed a second national lockdown. In all, Asia has reported more than 183,060 deaths. Many Asian nations, though, have been praised for suppressing the virus through strong public health measures, testing, quarantines, mask wearing and other measures.
China, where the virus originated last December, is an example of Asia’s success at suppressing the virus. In the past two weeks, China has reported only 297 new cases. China has declared it has developed a safe vaccine and hundreds of thousands of people are being injected on an emergency basis. The vaccine has not been approved by the WHO and many Western health experts are doubtful the vaccine has been proven to be safe.
On Friday, China said it had been given approval by the WHO to use the vaccine on an emergency basis; the agency denied that but said it has issued guidance on how vaccines may be used on an emergency basis.
Africa, meanwhile, remains a continent where the virus has not skyrocketed. One explanation is that Africa’s population is very young, making much of the continent less vulnerable. South Africa has been hit the hardest, but it has reported a decline in cases and deaths since July. It is reporting about 70 deaths a day and its death toll stands at about 16,280. In all, Africa has reported more than 34,700 deaths.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.