More than a year after the start of the pandemic, Europe is going through a grim spring. Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise in many countries as the continent grapples with a more infectious variant, a vaccine shortage and public weariness over lockdowns.
In France, “the epidemic is spreading quickly and it is spreading everywhere,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told parliament on Thursday after President Emmanuel Macron announced the country’s third national lockdown, which includes travel restrictions and school closings and extended a curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.
In two weeks, Castex said, the number of new cases recorded in France had risen from 55% to around 38,000 per day. This two-week growth compares to an increase of 95 percent in Belgium and 48 percent in the Netherlands in a similar time frame; in Germany, they increased by 75 percent. Part of this increase reflects an expansion in testing.
The latest pandemic wave in Europe, triggered by the spread of the now dominant B.1.1.7 strain of the virus first noted in England, is often referred to as a ‘third wave’, but observed across the continent as a whole , it looks more like a confused sea in which some national epidemics are worsening, some reaching their peak and others in decline.
In Germany, the most populous country in the EU, “since mid-March around 1,000 more intensive care patients have landed in hospital,” said Christian Karagiannidis of the Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and the country’s emergency medicine. If things continue at this rate, he says, “we will be at the limits of our regular capacity in less than four weeks.”
With older people getting priority for vaccines, it’s not just older people fighting for their lives in intensive care units across Europe. “Today, it is middle-aged and also younger patients who need to be ventilated,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a podcast on Friday.
In Spain and Italy, the situation is also deteriorating. “With the English variant, despite all the restrictions in place, we haven’t had the drop in new cases that we hoped for,” said Giovanni Leoni, vice-president of the Italian Federation of Physicians.
Eastern Europe is also hit hard. In Poland, the third wave of the pandemic was the worst yet, driving daily infections to record levels and straining the country’s healthcare system. There are now more people on ventilators and hospitalized with Covid-19 in Poland than at any time since the start of the pandemic in China last year.
“These are the worst days of the pandemic that we are going through,” Polish Minister of Health Adam Niedzielski said in a television interview last week. In the Czech Republic, cases began to decline after the government launched a strict lockdown following a push in late February. Cases in Slovakia also peaked.
Slow vaccine deployment has limited the ability of the 27 member states – which jointly procured the vaccines – to control the pandemic. This contrasts sharply with the rapid deployment in Israel, the UK and the US. “We have over 200,000 doctors ready to vaccinate citizens, but the lack of injections is slowing everything down. By now we should have been early, but we’re still completely bogged down. Leoni said.
Supplies are expected to improve rapidly in the coming weeks. Vaccine deliveries are expected to drop from 107 million doses in the first quarter to 360 million in the second, according to the European Commission. The differential is even wider than it looks, as 55m in Q2 jabs is Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot drug. The other three approved vaccines use two doses per patient. This should mean that the EU has enough shots to meet its goal of vaccinating 70% of its adult population – or around 255 million people – by September.
“Member states must be ready for an acceleration of delivery,” said an EU official. “Logistics must follow, and it is their responsibility. They must start now to organize mass vaccination and voice campaigns to convince citizens to go for the vaccination. “
The global fight for vaccines has added to tensions between the UK and the EU and caused cuts among bloc members on allocations.
Hungary – which recently suffered the most per capita deaths in the EU and has one of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the world – is near the top of the rankings for vaccinations out of the 27, with more 20% of the population have received at least one jab. This compares to 12.5 percent in the EU. Indeed, Hungary did not wait for approvals from the European Medical Agency and imported two Chinese vaccines and one Russian vaccine to supplement its supplies.
While waiting for vaccines, European governments are struggling to persuade their citizens to agree to further tough lockdowns a year after the start of the pandemic. Germany “urgently needs[s] a hard lockdown for two weeks, compulsory testing in schools twice a week and a much faster pace of vaccinations in centers and GP practices, ”Karagiannidis said.
Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Geneva, criticized arguments from European leaders like Macron in France who said they had to avoid too onerous lockdowns to save their economies.
Countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, Flahault said, had imposed aggressive repressive strategies for health reasons “and they have far better economic results than the United States. EU ”because they returned to normal life more quickly after stopping the spread of the disease.
Still, it’s probably too late to re-impose full lockdowns in Europe, said Martin Blachier, epidemiologist at Public Health Expertise, a Paris-based consulting firm. “The German and French governments realize that it is impossible to lock down the country. People go crazy so they don’t want to stay home.
While waiting for the arrival of new vaccines, Europe depends on social distancing and testing and traceability systems. For now, said Blachier, “lockdowns are no longer a solution, and vaccines are insufficient.”
By Victor Mallet in Paris, John Burn-Murdoch in London, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Michael Peel in Brussels, Davide Ghiglione in Rome, Valerie Hopkins in Budapest, James Shotter in Warsaw and Ian Mount in Madrid
Are you under 35? What issues are you most concerned about?
We want to hear from readers between the ages of 16 and 35 about what life is like and what issues need urgent resolution. Housing? Education? Works? Pensions? The environment? Tell us about your experiences via a short survey.