A spike in cases in Europe adds to the grim global picture of an accelerating pandemic.
(CN) — It’s turning into the summer Europeans didn’t want: One overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
With the pandemic accelerating elsewhere in the world, Europe’s hopes of enjoying a summer free from the threat of the novel coronavirus is in jeopardy as several countries begin to report a resurgence of coronavirus infections.
The flare-up in Europe, the epicenter of the pandemic between February and May, is prompting officials to take swift action to contain its spread, including through travel bans, quarantines, mandatory mask wearing and the closing of nightlife venues.
Over the weekend, Brits vacationing in Spain were taken aback and angered by an announcement from their government that they would have to go into two weeks of quarantine upon their arrival home because of an alarming rise in infections in Spain
But it’s not just Spain where the virus is on the rise. Throughout Europe, cases — though not deaths — are showing signs of surging and officials in France, Germany, Italy and Belgium are taking more aggressive actions to contain the virus before it can dangerously spread uncontrolled again.
The spike in cases in Europe adds to the grim global picture of an accelerating pandemic and underscores how difficult it is for countries that have overcome the worst of an outbreak to continue to suppress the respiratory virus. The situation in Europe also foreshadows the difficulties and challenges the United States may face even after it has gotten its outbreak under control.
At a news briefing on Monday, officials with the World Health Organization acknowledged the dilemmas nations are facing in both reopening their societies and stamping out the virus. Similar to Europe, Asian nations and Australia are seeing the number of cases rise too.
“It was always likely that when societies opened up, when mobility increased, that we were going to see disease return in one form or another — sporadic cases or clusters,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO chief of emergencies.
He said the real test for nations will be in responding quickly and surgically to outbreaks.
“What you’re really trying to do is to ensure small numbers of cases and clusters don’t reignite sustained and efficient community transmission,” he said.
He said nations can avoid crippling outbreaks and the need for new nationwide lockdowns by ensuring there is “a seamless relationship” between a national strategy and giving local authorities the flexibility to take targeted actions.
“That may be the future,” he said. “We may be in a situation where we’re having to react to cases and clusters, we may see community transmission emerge from some of those clusters, and we have to shut down or pull back on mobility and mixing in those local areas.”
Ryan said the key to preventing widespread and uncontrolled transmission is having a handle on who has been infected through testing and tracking down those who may be infected.
“The more we have a microscope on the virus, the much more precise we can be in surgically removing that virus from our communities,” he said. “But if we don’t know where the virus is, if we just have this broad community transmission, then we have to take very broad-based measures and in that situation that hurts the economy.”
These difficult choices facing nations was seen in the United Kingdom’s quarantine order, which was viewed by many as too hasty and drastic.
After months spent in lockdown to fight Europe’s worst outbreak, thousands of Brits headed for Spain, a favorite summertime destination, only to see their vacations upended by the quarantine order issued Saturday night. Brits were forced to cancel their beloved Spanish vacations — some got straight back onto airplanes to spend the rest of their vacation in quarantine at home, while others vowed they would disregard the quarantine rule.
The sudden action by the British government caught even the country’s transportation secretary, Grant Shapps, off-guard while he was vacationing in Spain. Ironically, the quarantine order was issued by his transportation ministry.
The quarantine requirement angered many in Spain who rely on British tourism. Brits account for more than 20% of the tourists who go to Spain, a country where tourism makes up about 12% of its gross domestic product. The U.K.’s quarantine order follows similar measures by Norway, Ireland and Belgium and warnings by other countries, including France, the Netherlands and Belgium, against traveling to infection hot spots in Spain.
Some Spanish regions where infection rates are low, such as arid and hot Andalusia and the tourist hot spots in the Canary Islands and Balearic Islands, are asking the U.K. government to exempt British travelers to those destinations from the quarantine requirement.
“Spain is a safe country,” said Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya. “Like any other country around the world that has managed to control Covid, Spain is working to isolate cases as soon as they appear, trace the contacts, and make sure we treat them and separate them so that the rest of the country can get on with their lives and the economy can continue, and that tourists can continue to enjoy Spain.”
The quarantine order forced travel companies to make major changes. TUI, Europe’s biggest holiday company, canceled its bookings from the U.K. to mainland Spain. Ryanair and British Airways said they would continue flights from the U.K. to Spain but blasted the U.K. government.
“We can’t make apologies,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Sky News television. “We must be able to take swift, decisive action.”
The quarantine order also highlights fears in the U.K. about a resurgence of the virus unless tough actions are taken. The U.K. said it might impose quarantines on people returning from other countries too.
Raab said the government must prevent “reinfection” and the potential of a “second wave here and then another lockdown.”
In March, the U.K. was slow to order a lockdown and its government has come under intense criticism for botching the response to the pandemic. The U.K. is Europe’s worst-hit country with 45,752 deaths and nearly 300,000 infections. Recently, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who became sick with Covid-19 after he downplayed the risk from the virus, acknowledged he made mistakes in the opening stages of the pandemic.
Since early July, Spain has seen a steady increase in the number of infections and in recent days reported more than 2,000 new infections a day. In response, several cities and towns have been placed into lockdown again.
One such city is Zaragoza, a lively city in the northern region of Aragon. In recent weeks, the number of Covid-19 cases has steadily risen and local authorities have reimposed restrictions. Catalonia too is trying to contain its own outbreaks with restrictions, such as closing nightclubs and late-night bars for 15 days and curtailing the opening hours for bingo parlors, gambling halls and casinos. Barcelona also has asked residents to stay home if they can.
The resurgence of the disease is hitting Spain hard just as it was hoping to begin a recovery from one of Europe’s worst outbreaks. Last week, the European Union’s leaders approved a $860 billion stimulus recovery fund that is expected to greatly benefit Spain with billions of dollars in grants and cheap loans to help its economy. Getting other EU leaders to approve the recovery fund was seen as a major victory for Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, but the spread of infections is dampening the optimism.
Since the outbreak hit Spain, the country has recorded about 319,000 infections and 28,432 deaths. But that official count is likely too low. Over the weekend, El Pais, a major newspaper in Spain, said an analysis it conducted estimates that as many as 44,868 people in Spain may have died from the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Spain’s current infection rate varies widely from region to region and stands nationally at 39.4 cases of infection per 100,000 inhabitants, making it the fifth highest in Europe, according to the European Center for Disease Control. Luxembourg, Romania, Bulgaria and Sweden are higher.
But rates of infection are very high in hot spots such as Aragon, where the rate of infection has reached 237.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Catalonia’s rate stands at 111.5 cases per 100,000.
Spain’s rate of infection is far higher than in the U.K. and France, where about 14.7 cases per 100,000 inhabitants are being found. Germany’s rate is much lower at about 7.7 per 100,000.
Although the numbers of new infections are far from what they were during the height of Europe’s pandemic, authorities are alarmed about a so-called second wave.
“The second coronavirus wave is already here,” Michael Kretschmer, the premier of the east German state of Saxony, told the Rheinische Post on Saturday. “It is already taking place every day. We have new clusters of infection every day which could become very high numbers.”
In Germany, the latest outbreak was found on an agricultural farm in Bavaria where more than 170 migrant workers tested positive. The farm and its 500 workers were placed under lockdown and fenced off. Previously, Germany found outbreaks among migrant workers in the country’s largest meat processing plants.
There are concerns about an uptick in cases in Germany more generally as the country records a two-week high in new cases. Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, the lead agency for infectious diseases, said the number of new cases has risen from around 500 per day to over 800.
In France, too, the virus appears to be picking up with the country reporting more than 1,000 new cases each day. French Prime Minister Jean Castex said over the weekend that large-scale lockdowns won’t be imposed because of the damage that would cause to the economy but he said localized lockdowns may be necessary.
To fight the virus, France is forcing people who arrive from infection hot spots to take on-the-spot coronavirus tests. Germany is considering doing the same for holidaymakers returning from places deemed high-risk destinations.
A resurgence of the virus in Belgium has prompted the small nation to impose new restrictions. Belgium’s infection rate has reached 21.2 cases per 100,000. Mask wearing has become mandatory in many public places, including busy streets and open-air markets, and vacationers are being told to notify authorities when they return.
Italian authorities too are concerned. For weeks, Italy has seen its infections and deaths drop to extremely low numbers. But Italy, the first European country to find itself overwhelmed by the virus in February, is seeing the virus resurface.
“The virus continues to circulate and it is ready to start again, as it has done in Spain, where the climate and lifestyle are certainly not very different from ours,” said Italian virologist Roberto Burioni.
Sensing trouble ahead unless stricter measures are enforced, European authorities are getting tough again. In France, people found not wearing a mask in closed public spaces face a fine of about $160. In the southern region of Campania, authorities are getting even tougher: They are threatening to fine people not wearing masks in closed public spaces $1,175.
“If our fellow citizens think that the problem is resolved, that means that within a few weeks we will return to a hard emergency,” the region’s governor Vincenzo De Luca said on Facebook in announcing the new fine.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.