Thu, 26 Nov 2020

The drastic step that no European politician wanted to take again is back on the agenda: lockdown.

French President Emmanuel Macron - whose government carefully avoided publicly discussing a national shutdown through a recent surge in coronavirus cases - relented on Friday, acknowledging that the country could be heading back toward broader restrictions on movement.

Like other leaders in the region, Macron is running out of options. As officials from Dublin to Prague grapple with the resurgent pandemic, their efforts to limit the virus's spread with softer measures - from mandatory mask-wearing to partial curfews - aren't working.

For Italy's Giuseppe Conte and Germany's Angela Merkel, there are high political stakes. While they were lauded for how they managed the first wave, criticism is now mounting. People are fed up, divisions between local and national governments are mounting, and if a prolonged lockdown is the only answer, they will be blamed for wrecking economies.

The new coronavirus wave looks different from the first. The case numbers appear far higher - France reported a record number of new infections on Sunday - but increased testing is catching more cases. Meanwhile, the number of fatalities - while far lower than in the spring - is on the rise, as is the flow of patients requiring hospital care.

With health-care services gradually coming under strain, one blunt tool remains: shutter the economy and order people to stay home.

"Politicians have difficult decisions to make," Jean-Francois Delfraissy, the lead doctor advising the French government on the pandemic, said in an interview on RTL radio on Monday. "This second wave is probably going to be worse than the first. It's sweeping through all of Europe."

Having already had a lockdown imposed on them in the spring, many Europeans strongly oppose a second one. Protesters in cities including London, Naples and Berlin marched over the weekend against pandemic "tyranny." In Italy, some some gyms and cinemas said they won't obey orders to close.

To make matters worse, even drastic measures won't bring immediate relief. Despite calls for a strict two-week shutdown in the U.K., a look at data from the spring shows it took about four weeks for the March 23 stay-at-home order to start having an effect.

In France, the number of patients hospitalised kept climbing for almost a month after a national lockdown was implemented on March 17. After that, it ebbed only slowly.

"This is a dangerous moment for many countries in the northern hemisphere," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general at the World Health Organization, told a health conference on Sunday. "But again and again, we have seen that taking the right actions quickly means the outbreak can be managed."

Some governments are ready to embrace tougher measures. Belgium is mulling a lockdown. Poland and the Czech Republic - the worst-hit country in Europe - signaled more curbs may be near. Ireland shuttered its economy for six weeks.

German Chancellor Merkel, who has recently called for greater urgency in the fight against the pandemic, moved forward a meeting with state leaders to discuss next steps by two days to Wednesday. The Bild newspaper reported that the country would move to "lockdown light" restrictions that would impact restaurants, bars and events, but keep most schools open.

In Spain, the central government announced plans to hand the country's regions sweeping powers to declare lockdowns, restrictions on movement and curfews. The move is intended to delegate some unpopular measures to local authorities and avoid pushback against national edicts, as happened earlier in the year.

More vigorous local action to stem outbreaks at the source is a good idea, according to Azeem Majeed, a professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College in London.

"The government has been unwilling to release budgets and responsibility locally," said Majeed. "They've preferred a more centralized model, which doesn't work that well unfortunately."

Hospitals appear less prepared to cope, partly because surgeries that were put on hold seven months ago can't be delayed again, and partly because more doctors and nurses are falling ill than during the European spring.

Imminent Measures

Merkel's chief of staff said Monday that 85% of German cases could no longer be traced back to the source of the infection, meaning physicians have lost track of the contamination chain.

The German chancellor, who has struggled to get state leaders aligned, told a meeting of officials from her party that new measures are imminent, according to a person familiar with the discussion. Europe's biggest economy was one of the most resilient nations in the first wave, but over the past week, the daily average is well above the spring peak.

Cases began surging across Europe as temperatures dipped and the continent moved into the fall. The SARS-CoV-2 virus survives longer in colder temperatures, increasing contagion risk. It's possible social-distancing fatigue also played a role.

"We are surprised by the brutality of what has been happening for the past 10, 15 days," France's Delfraissy said.

In Poland, as in other European nations, officials managed to contain the spring wave thanks to a full lockdown, prompting the government to begin easing restrictions.

Top officials declared that the virus was "no longer a threat," helping them mobilize elderly voters during a presidential ballot in the summer, which the incumbent won by a thin margin.

"As the number of infected Poles started growing, people still believed that things were under control," said Olgierd Annusewicz, a political scientist at Warsaw University. "That was the time when temporary hospitals should have been built, so we entered the second wave unprepared."

Source: News24

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