TAi tundet of an epidemic tend to rise like a tsunami – slowly, almost suddenly, before a major surge. In parts of Europe there are now fears that cases of covid-19 may again be near a dangerous point of infection. In Spain, every day new cases during the week to July 28 have risen significantly to almost ten times lower than they had dropped in June, when the blockade was lifted. Less dramatic but disturbing increases in cases have begun to bubble in other European countries.
At the moment, the points in Europe are mainly limited to some countries of hot spots, regions within them or even cities. The infection rate is particularly high in the Balkans and Spain, which has recorded about 27 cases per 100,000 people over the past week. The corresponding scale of cases in Germany, France and Italy is in single figures. In both low- and high-scoring countries, the majority of new cases are often concentrated in specific locations. Roughly two-thirds of Spain’s affairs over the past week are from just two regions, Catalonia and Aragon, which are home to one-fifth of Spaniards. About 20% of Italy’s cases in 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 blockages were lifted and people resumed traveling and mixing, both imported cases and local spread of the virus have pushed up. What is different now is that testing and tracking systems are catching up locally early, and authorities are battling them with localized measures. On 27 July Antwerp, the most populous province in Belgium, announced a night curfew for non-essential movement and made masks mandatory in public spaces; people have been told to stay home as long as possible. Covert rallies have emerged across Germany, in care homes, workplaces and private parties, forcing officials to impose localized blockades. In mid-July, Catalan authorities imposed a severe blockade on Lleida, a city of 140,000. Nightclubs in Barcelona and other hotspots in Spain were recently closed or ordered to close early.
The rate of change of covid-19 across Europe has made countries make some difficult choices. In a normal year, around 18 million Britons seek sunshine in Spain, along with many other northern Europeans. But as cases in Spain increased, Britain and Norway quickly brought quarantine to people coming from Spain. Vacationers in Greece from some Balkan countries now have to show proof of a negative covid-19 test to enter the country. This has dealt a blow to everything that remains of the foreign tourist season in much of southern Europe. But there has been a collective easing of relief among health officials watching with spooky clubs and beaches filled with drunken strangers.
However, this still remains a matter of intensifying local broadcasting. One pattern that touches across Europe is that new cases have been mostly among people in the 20s and 30s; groupings affiliated with major parties have become a recurring theme across the continent. German politicians have warned that citizens are growing complacent about the risks; polls confirm suspicions that fewer people are avoiding crowded spaces or private gatherings. Dr Kluge says the priority in Europe now is to ensure that young people are more respectful of such precautions. If that fails, he says, it will not be long before infections spread to older, vulnerable people.
As summer begins to spread, the need to improve outbreaks across Europe will become increasingly acute. A major concern in all countries is autumn, when people begin to spend more time indoors and the flu and other respiratory infections increase as each year, filling hospital beds. Countries that reach that point with a high plateau of covid-19 cases may see a return to the exponential growth that surpasses hospitals again. Across Europe, they are better prepared for a second wave than the first, with new measures to curb the spread of covid-19 in hospitals and extra beds and field hospitals that are now tired. But how much will be hit will largely depend on how their citizens choose to play by the rules of the new normal.■
Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of Economist Sot, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our center
This article appeared in the European part of the print edition entitled “Still with us”