In the battle against Covid-19, Europe is looking back at a summer of squandered opportunities.
With the virus suppressed following months of intensive social restrictions last spring, European leaders quickly moved to accelerate the reopening of society to try to spur an economic recovery. But pockets of infection persisted, and few countries had put in place adequate systems to track and lock down local outbreaks. Making matters worse, in several regions infection rates never fell to a level where such systems could work effectively.
The result: A second wave of infections washing across the continent that is proving difficult to manage and poses the risk that Europe will have to live with high infection rates well into next year.
“People assumed the situation was under control but it wasn’t,” said Rafael Bengoa, the co-director of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao, Spain. “The fire was out but the embers weren’t.”
European nations are trying to strike a middle path, neither fully repressing the virus nor fully opening up their economies, a vast experiment in how to manage a pandemic without infringing too extensively on civil liberties or destroying livelihoods.
Most are now experimenting with localized restrictions in virus hot spots. But the balancing act is set to be sorely tested as public compliance with rules frays and the death toll again climbs. Already some leaders are abandoning the lighter-touch strategy. Ireland’s government recently announced a six-week lockdown.
“It is just very difficult,” said Lawrence Freedman, a professor at King’s College London. “People talk as if there is an obvious policy to follow but there isn’t.”
The race to return to a form of normality fanned the virus. Across the continent universities welcomed back students, the U.K. government subsidized millions of restaurant meals to get people to eat out, newly reopened borders saw tourists flock to night clubs in Spain and beaches in France. With the virus out of sight, people’s behavior relaxed.
“Authorities prioritized the economy over health, thinking that during the summer nothing would happen,” said Saúl Ares, researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology of Spain’s National Research Council.
Today that has left leaders with little option but to reimpose restrictions to slow the virus’s spread. A state of emergency has been declared in France and Spain. Paris is under nightly curfew and Madrid is locked down. People living in Wales are advised to leave the house only for exercise. Face masks have been made compulsory in Italy, even outdoors. Though these restrictions aren’t yet as stringent as the total closures seen earlier this year, they are likely to both dent economic growth and test the morale of populations in the winter months, experts say.
On the whole, European countries are in a better place to handle the pandemic than in March. Testing capacity has vastly expanded and hospitals are better able to treat the sick. Europeans are now accustomed to social distancing and wearing masks in public.
But even Italy, traumatized after the north of