(CN) — Lockdowns are becoming Europe's weapon of last resort as it fights a surge of the novel coronavirus, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson becoming the latest leader to announce a national lockdown.
For now, Europe's lockdowns are not as strict as those imposed in the spring after the novel coronavirus was discovered to be spreading quickly in northern Italy. Instead of shutting down nearly everything, European leaders are experimenting with curfews, the closing of some businesses, such as bars and gyms, and restricting travel.
On Monday, Germany joined France, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Austria and Ireland in enforcing nationwide restrictions. On Saturday, Johnson said England too would be placed under a lockdown starting Thursday.
“We need to take the heat out of this epidemic right now in Europe and governments have limited options right now in how to do that,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the emergencies chief at the World Health Organization, during a news briefing on Monday.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on the pandemic, said the health systems in North America and Europe, epicenters in the pandemic, are struggling to deal with a sudden wave of infection.
“One of the challenges we're seeing across North America and across Europe is that the increases in cases, the increases in hospitalization, the increases in ICU are happening at the same time,” she said. “In the spring, there was some staggering of this increase; but it's happening in many countries at the same time where many systems are becoming overwhelmed at the same time.”
Unlike the first wave when nations were largely dealing with major outbreaks in limited geographic areas, this second wave is more difficult to handle because nations are fighting outbreaks in many places at the same time, she added.
“So that poses challenges for countries that were able to move facilities and move workforce around to help manage the most intense areas” during the first wave, Van Kerkhove said.
The WHO, the United Nations health agency leading global efforts to curb the pandemic, is dealing with its own coronavirus problems. On Monday, the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he placed himself into self-quarantine after coming into contact with someone infected by the coronavirus. The WHO is based in Geneva and Switzerland is reporting a steep rise in cases.
“I am well and without symptoms but will self-quarantine in coming days in line with protocols,” he said during the news briefing.
The WHO said its Geneva headquarters was not seeing any infections on its premises. Staff are tested and screened on a regular basis, WHO officials said.
He also used his situation as an example of proper behavior and a teachable moment.
“At this time, it is critically important that we all comply with health guidance; this is how we will break chains of transmission, suppress the virus and protect health systems,” he said.
The health agency's experts say a major failure in Europe has been a breakdown in ensuring infected people and those potentially infected are in quarantine. For months, the health agency has been telling governments they must invest heavily in testing people for the virus and then rigorously quarantining anyone who is infected and also track down people who came into contact with an infected person, test them too and ensure other infected people are placed in isolation.
Asian nations are held up as models of this system of testing and contact tracing and many experts credit this ability as the key to their success in keeping the number of infections far lower than in North America and Europe.
“For me, the big missing link in what’s going on in many European countries is management of isolation,” said Dr. Margaret Harris, a health expert and spokeswoman for the WHO, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper. “That’s not just isolation of people who are sick – it’s isolation of people who have contacts and are first-degree contacts.”
Tedros said the new wave of infection in Europe and North America should propel governments to boost their public health systems further.
“There is an opportunity now to build stronger systems,” he said. “Ensuring that quality testing, tracing, treatment are implemented are key.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.