Why Europe is vulnerable to second wave of COVID-19

The broader public is more exhausted and showing signs of fatigue with lockdowns, social distancing and face masks

  
A staff member poses next to a display on quarantine in the Science Museum during a Guest Preview Day ahead of the official opening on Wednesday, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain August 17, 2020.

A staff member poses next to a display on quarantine in the Science Museum during a Guest Preview Day ahead of the official opening on Wednesday, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain August 17, 2020.

Reuters/John Sibley

Can Europe handle a new spike, a so-called second wave, of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)? This is the question everyone is asking, with most fearing the answer. Europe succeeded China as the epicenter of the virus, as it hit the continent hard from April to June in particular. A downturn in July allowed for a gradual reopening, at varying rates, with many countries desperate to reignite their battered economies.

The evidence indicates that this period of suppression is over, amid fears of a second wave. Germany this month had more than 1,000 cases in a day for the first time since May 7. Even more drastic spikes have been seen in France and Spain. Greece is also suffering after having handled the outbreak so effectively thus far. Still, entry to Greece — where the full details of all arrivals are logged — is far more effectively martialed in terms of tracking than in France, for example. From anecdotal experiences, the cafes in Athens have hand sanitizer on every table, whereas in French towns the sole bottle looks lonely and unused. Paris is on the verge of another lockdown, with mandatory face mask rules in force in many cities and towns across France. The UK has introduced local lockdowns in places like Leicester, and more look likely to follow.

This term “wave” is misleading. It implies that the virus was in remission and disappearing like a winter flu bug. It was not. The spread of the virus is contingent on the effectiveness of the measures to suppress it, so easing restrictions will almost inevitably lead to new spikes in cases. “I think that we should consider ourselves always at risk until we either (have) immunity, which no community has, or we have a vaccine. And first or second wave isn’t super accurate in describing that,” said Prof. Sarah Fortune of Harvard’s School of Public Health.

In theory, the continent, its governments and its health authorities should now be better prepared. We know far more about the virus and its transmission. Stocks of protective equipment and sanitizer are now substantial, when once they were so scarce. Testing has improved in both availability and speed and, in some countries, a semblance of a track and trace program is in place.

Yet this is far from the whole picture. Authorities may be more prepared but, at the same time, the broader public is more exhausted and showing signs of fatigue with lockdowns, social distancing and face masks. This appears to be particularly the case with the younger age groups. While scientific analysis of the virus has advanced, huge gaps still exist in how to handle it, and positive noises about possible vaccines should not mask how long it might take until one is widely available.

Major decisions are required. What part of the economy might, for example, have to be sacrificed to get schools back in September to ensure a whole generation is not left behind? Could bars and nightclub openings be curtailed in this equation? In a choice between the education of children and leisure drinking, surely there can only be one winner. I tested this on a cafe owner in France. “Another lockdown and my place and all these other cafes. We are kaput, finished,” he said. This time around, governments will be wary of the heavy spending that has already taken place; they cannot afford the same generous bailouts. The UK is entering its worst recession on record. Its furlough system is due to come to an end in October and, as yet, there are no promises it will be extended.

One would have also hoped that the shaky, patchy international cooperation seen at the start of the pandemic would be replaced by constructive and effective efforts. Italians ask where was the European solidarity when Bergamo was hit so hard in the spring? Many remember that it was Albania who sent nurses to assist during their hour of need, not the Germans or the French. Resentment grew, as did Euroskepticism.

Take the quarantine steps being put in place. If one European country imposes quarantine on arrivals from another, reciprocal steps typically ensue, regardless of the state of the pandemic. This is a blunt tool that fails to differentiate according to region. Many areas of France, for example, had infection rates lower than in the UK, but London last week decided on a blanket ban. In the UK, the quarantine time for arrivals from virus hotspots is 14 days, but in Switzerland it is 10. Britain’s policy is to impose restrictions almost immediately once a threshold of about 20 cases per 100,000 is reached.

Brussels Airport is set to offer onsite coronavirus tests for a fee, begging the question why other entry points cannot. Italy has opted to impose mandatory COVID-19 tests for arrivals from countries including Greece and Spain — a less strict approach than the UK. Many scientists query why governments do not impose a system of double testing: A test on arrival followed by one a week later.

Moreover, the epidemic should be easier to handle in the hot summer months, when so many people are outside, as opposed to winter, when the Europeans will be largely stuck inside offices and homes. “We must work to get the infection figures down again, and they should be at the lowest possible level at the end of the summer because, according to everything we know so far, it is easier for us to keep the numbers down in summer than in fall and winter,” said Helge Braun, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff.

The European frailties that have bedeviled the continent’s handling of this epidemic have, like the virus, also not disappeared. The lack of coordination between states and regions is alarming. Sweden continues on its own path toward a goal of herd immunity that may never be achievable. Across Europe, the messaging lacks clarity and often urgency, at times permitting a dangerous false sense of security. Progress in certain areas, such as a massive surge in testing, is offset by a continued lack of proper strategic planning amid an epidemic that looks certain to last for many more months.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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