The European Union’s fight against Covid-19 is stalled in the dead of winter, even as spring and vaccines stimulate hope for improvement in the US and UK.
Contagion is on the rise again in much of the EU, despite months of restrictions on daily life, as the most virulent virus strains outperform vaccines. A climate of sadness and frustration is settling on the continent, and governments are caught between their promises of progress and the bleak epidemiological reality.
Virus infections and deaths have declined rapidly in the US and UK since January as vaccines take off among the elderly and other vulnerable groups. In the EU, however, new cases of Covid-19 have increased again since mid-February. Infections and deaths in the United States, which were highest per capita for most of 2020, have fallen below those of the bloc.
Across much of the continent, the spread of the most aggressive variant first detected in the UK is behind the worsening pandemic, undoing strenuous efforts to curb the virus since the autumn with a series of restrictions that have brought recovery. economic block. to a standstill.
Governments and public health experts say that only a combination of accelerated vaccines and gradual reopening can defeat the latest Covid-19 rally. But the EU’s efforts continue to suffer from its slow procurement and approval of vaccines, production delays by vaccine manufacturers and bureaucratic delays in injecting available doses.
So far, there is nothing quite like the acute hospital crisis that overwhelmed healthcare systems in parts of Italy and Spain a year ago. Instead, the bloc’s public health crisis has become chronic, with authorities constantly fighting to douse the flames.
Despite similar trends in the largest countries in the bloc, political pressures are leading to different responses.
Italy, the first western country affected by the pandemic, entered the world’s first national blockade on March 10 last year. Now some Italians are beginning to joke that they will be the last nation to emerge from a lockdown.
The first big decision of the new Prime Minister Mario Draghi, confirmed on Friday, was to block many regions of Italy as of Monday and the entire country during Easter.
The decision means nonessential bars, restaurants and shops will close in many regions, while elsewhere they face stricter limits on hours and services offered. The movement of people will be more restricted. Millions of students at the school will return to remote learning.
Italy’s rally comes after weeks of lighter measures that failed to halt the rapid rise of the UK variant.
“I thank the citizens once again for their discipline, their infinite patience,” Draghi said earlier this week. His new administration, hired primarily for his financial expertise, is struggling to find ways to increase vaccine production.
Draghi does not have to worry about re-election: he is a technocratic prime minister who runs an emergency government with the support of almost every party in Parliament for probably only a year.
Elsewhere in the region, electoral pressures are preventing leaders from tightening restrictions despite rising infections and hospitalizations.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who is running for re-election next year, has rejected requests from public health experts to impose a third blockade on the country. Instead, it has relied on a nationwide night curfew and other restrictions as authorities try to speed up vaccinations.
Health Minister Olivier Veran told reporters Thursday that the variants now account for more than 70% of new infections in France. The pressure is rising again in intensive care units in the Paris region, where he said a new patient is admitted every 12 minutes. Veran said he expected authorities to begin transferring dozens of patients outside the Paris area to hospitals in regions that have fewer cases. Nationwide, ICUs are almost 80% full.
“It is a situation that I would describe as tense and worrying,” Veran said.
In Germany, which is preparing for the national elections in September, there is little political will to re-impose stricter restrictions, even though infections have started to rise again since early February. Scientists say the UK variant is behind the rise there as well.
The setback took the German government by surprise: For weeks, it seemed that the pandemic was receding, and federal and state authorities promised a relaxation of lockdown measures. Fearing a public reaction, the German authorities are easing some measures anyway.
The hair salons reopened on March 1. Some state governments have allowed some stores, from bookstores to garden centers, to reopen. Younger children have also started to return to classrooms.
Despite frustrations over the restrictions, many question the government’s strategy. Only 30% of Germans trust the competence of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party, while trust in her center-left coalition partner is in the single digits, according to a poll released this week by the institute for opinion polls Forsa.
The German press, which initially supported Merkel’s handling of the pandemic, has also turned against the government, with posts from the conservative mass market tabloid Bild to the leftist Spiegel attacking the authorities’ competition on a daily basis.
Now scientists fear that the combination of virus variants, snail-beat vaccines and reopening could increase infection rates. “We are seeing clear signs that the third wave has started in Germany,” Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases, told reporters on Thursday. “I’m very worried.”
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