Europe has been praised for keeping the pandemic in check while reopening its economy.
Unlike in the US, a combination of responsible individual behaviour and smart public policy has delayed a resurgence of the new coronavirus.
However, economies and citizens can only take so much of closures and extreme social distancing. From Germany to Greece, an increase in new cases is threatening to turn into a more serious second wave of Covid-19.
Some of this is inevitable as shops and businesses reopen, and the younger profile of the newly infected means the latest cases have been less serious. But Europe can’t afford to let the pandemic overwhelm its hospitals, especially in the autumn and winter when more of life is forced indoors.
More serious thought must be given to what activities are acceptable.
In some countries, teenagers and twentysomethings are taking to the dance floors of reopened nightclubs, perhaps hopping from one holiday venue to the next. For a continent that closed its schools, this is a bizarre priority.
Europe doesn’t have to face a second round of full draconian lockdowns, which would be disastrous for the economy. However, countries do need to step up their efforts to contain infections again, insisting on the enforcement of social-distancing rules and limiting large gatherings.
After a benign start to the Summer, several European states have suffered multiple outbreaks. In Germany, the authorities have counted more than 1,000 new cases for each of the past three days. France, Spain and the Netherlands are seeing sharp increases in new infections. Even countries that dealt relatively well with the spring outbreak — such as Greece — warn of a second wave.
For now, the situation is very different from March, April and May. The number of daily deaths has fallen sharply and hospitals are no longer under pressure. Many of those who test positive have no or few symptoms, a sign that authorities are closer to establishing the “real” number of cases. National health services are actively tracing outbreaks and doctors have become better at treating the sick.
Still, Europe knows the danger of this deadly virus. If case numbers keep rising, it will become harder to contain. Covid-19 could start to circulate widely again among the more vulnerable parts of the population, such as older people.
Most people haven’t developed the antibodies to deal with SARS-CoV-2. Serological studies in Britain and Spain put the proportion at 5%-6% (although some studies show people may have developed other forms of immunity).
Then there are the costs of having to enforce a new lockdown. In the first half of 2020, European economies shrunk dramatically. Gross domestic product in Spain and Britain fell more than 20% compared with the end of 2019. Governments have adopted extraordinary measures — including furlough schemes — to keep their economies afloat, but they’re hugely expensive. A new round of closures would hit the morale of the population and might cause long-term psychological damage.
European governments should continue with their efforts to circumscribe outbreaks as soon as they emerge. This requires localized “smart” lockdowns, as has happened in Germany and Britain.
For now, the greatest emphasis is on limiting imported cases. Britain has a quarantine on travellers from countries including Spain and France. Italy is obliging those returning from four countries to undertake mandatory tests.
But this isn’t enough: There are clear signs that the virus is circulating locally.
Some countries, including Italy, have allowed open-air nightclubs to operate again, under pressure from industry groups. The authorities are now experiencing just how difficult it is to trace the contacts of young revellers, and to contain the possible spread.
A teenage girl tested positive after attending a nightclub in Marina di Pietrasanta on the Tuscan coast. For now, reportedly 550 people have made themselves known, which will stretch the capacity of the local health-care system.
No doubt some will prefer not to be identified, as they fear a long stretch of self-isolation. Similar instances have occurred at nightclubs in Sardinia and in the southern Italian town of Soverato. It seems wiser to keep such activities shut. These crowds aren’t very different from those at football stadiums, which are still banned.
Finally, governments will need continued vigilance from citizens. In Italy, people have been impressively compliant on wearing masks and limiting unnecessary contact.
As social-distancing fatigue kicks in, these precautions have started to slip; it’s the same across Europe as people forget the grim scenes of overwhelmed medics and ambulance sirens on city streets. A little more individual prudence would go a long way in keeping the pandemic in check.
Europe has shown it has the institutional capability to deal with this crisis. As autumn returns and more people move into closed spaces where contagion is easier, risks will increase. It’s better to act now than regret it later.