THE WAVES epidemics tend to rise like a tsunami – slowly, almost hidden, from a sharp rise. In some parts of Europe, they now fear that covid-19 cases may once again approach a threatening inflection point. In Spain, new day-to-day cases rose sharply in the week to 28 July, to almost ten times the minimum left in June, when the blockade was lifted. Less dramatic but worrying increases in cases are beginning to appear in other European countries.
At present, Europe̵7;s peaks are mostly limited to a few hotspot countries, regions within them or even cities. Infection rates are particularly high in the Balkans and Spain, with around 27 cases per 100,000 people in the last week. The corresponding case rates in Germany, France and Italy are single digits. In both low and high rate countries, most new cases often focus on specific locations. Roughly two-thirds of Spain’s cases in the last week come from only two regions, Catalonia and Aragon, which are home to a fifth of Spaniards. About 20% of Italy’s cases during the same period are in the Emilia-Romagna region, which has only 7% of the population.
The increase in cases across Europe is not surprising, says Hans Kluge of the World Health Organization. As the closures were lifted and people continued to travel and mix, imports and local spread of the virus pushed up. Now it is different that testing and monitoring systems capture local spikes soon and the authorities fight them with localized measures. On 27 July, Antwerp, the most populous province in Belgium, announced a night curfew due to insignificant movement and imposed a mandatory mask in public places; people were told to stay home as much as possible. Throughout Germany, covert groups appeared in nursing homes, workplaces and private parties, forcing officials to impose localized lockouts. In mid-July, the Catalan authorities lifted a strict lock in the 140,000-strong city of Lleida. Nightclubs in Barcelona and other hotspots in Spain have recently closed or have been ordered to close soon.
Different covid-19 rates across Europe have forced countries to make some tough decisions. In the normal year, about 18 meters of the British are looking for entertainment in Spain in the sun, along with many other northern Europeans. But as cases increased in Spain, Britain and Norway quickly brought quarantines for people coming from Spain. Greek holidaymakers from some Balkan countries now have to prove a negative test to enter the country. This affected everything that was left of the foreign tourism season in most of southern Europe. However, there was mass relief among health officials who watched trepidation clubs and beaches full of strangers.
However, the question remains of intensifying local transmission. The pattern that is spreading across Europe is that new cases were mostly among people aged 20 and 30; Large-party clusters have become a recurring theme across the continent. German politicians have warned that citizens are increasingly complaining about the dangers; Surveys confirm the suspicion that fewer people are avoiding crowded public spaces or private gatherings. Dr. Kluge says the priority in Europe today is to ensure that young people adhere more to such measures. If it fails, he says it won’t be long before the infection spreads to older vulnerable people.
As summer begins to fade, the need to reduce outbreaks across Europe will become increasingly urgent. A huge problem in all countries is autumn, when people start spending more time at home and the flu and other respiratory infections are rising as they do every year, filling hospital beds. Countries that get to this point with a high plateau of covid-19 cases could see a return to exponential growth, which again amazes hospitals. Across Europe, they are better prepared for the second wave than for the first, with new measures to limit the spread of covid-19 in hospitals and relief beds and field hospitals, which are now mothballed. But the extent to which they are affected will largely depend on the extent to which their citizens choose to play by the rules of the new standard.■
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This article appeared in the printed edition in the Europe section under the heading “Still with us”.