After a summer of relative freedom of movement, autumn has brought a major spike in COVID-19 cases in many European countries. While the European Union fruitlessly searches for a united way forward across its various jurisdictions, national and regional initiatives are trying to solve the conundrum of how to contain and reverse the spread of the virus without having a significant impact on the economy.
Europe is not alone in its suffering – much of the northern hemisphere is dealing with spiralling infection rates as the autumn turns to a long winter. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a month-long lockdown as cases pass the 1 million mark; in the United States, a third wave of COVID is well underway, with the country recording a grim record of 100,000 new cases in a single day.
As France’s President Emmanuel Macron has admitted, the virus has spread through Europe “at a speed that even the most pessimistic predictions didn’t foresee”.
He has branded his new lockdown proposals a “brutal” brake on the virus, but compared with the determined measures undertaken in Victoria, it is a half-measure that stands little chance of eradicating or even suppressing the virus. Schools, shops and many businesses outside the hospitality and entertainment sector will remain open; so too will nursing homes. Travel to and from work will continue and exercise within 1 kilometre of home for up to an hour will also be permitted.
Given the fractious tone of contemporary politics in France, this is probably as far as Macron can go. Whether the French public, already deeply divided, will accept the measures is uncertain. His attempt to divert attention away from the health crisis by opportunistically courting a culture war with France’s Muslim citizens and the rest of the Islamic world has already had devastating consequences.
Should it fall to police to force compliance in the absence of goodwill, protests will quickly sprout, as they have in the Czech Republic, where far-right elements presenting themselves as anti-mask protesters have clashed with police on the streets of Prague.
Germany, which had until recently been spared the higher infection rates of its neighbours, is now also heading on the same trajectory. Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned Germans the exponential growth of infections has left governments no choice but to implement dampening measures to begin on November 2.
Described as a “soft lockdown”, these measures, like those proposed in France by Macron, ban visits to bars, restaurants, clubs and pubs, but allow schools, shops and places of worship to stay open.
Candidly, Merkel has confessed she would have preferred to have undertaken these measures a fortnight ago, but felt they were simply politically unacceptable then. To her mind, the lag was not ideal. “That’s politics,” she admitted.
Her pessimism might be well founded. Many in Germany’s hospitality and entertainment industries already feel that, while much of society remains open, they have been made to play the part of the sacrificial lamb.
On the noisy margins, Germany’s Qanon-adjacent Querdenker movement insists any measure to stop people dying from COVID constitutes an egregious limitation to their personal liberty.
In typically opportunistic fashion, the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has also heckled Merkel as she brought the measures before the Bundestag.
The party refused to support Merkel’s argument that it is only through “reason and social solidarity” that the virus can be brought back under control. Instead, like populist right-wing elements the world over, they implausibly argue Merkel is implementing a “corona dictatorship”.
With the entire European project predicated on freedom of movement – something accentuated in the debates over Brexit, the Australian approach of simply closing Europe’s internal borders, or even regional borders, has not generally been embraced.
As the state most committed to freedom of movement across the European Union, Germany has explicitly warned against such restrictions. Merkel told the EU:
…it is especially important for Germany as a country in the middle of Europe that the borders stay open, that there is a functioning economic circulation and that we fight the pandemic together.
However, it is unlikely the EU can or will move as one on border lockdowns, or indeed any other COVID measure.
The question of mobility is a vexed one for the EU and one where history is more deceptive than illuminating. The Spanish flu model, that many are using to understand the current phases of the pandemic, is not appropriate. Spanish flu was in part accelerated by the global movement of people accompanying demobilisation at the end of the first world war. Unlike then, a “return to normal” today does not mean a return to a condition of global immobility. Now, particularly in Europe, a return to normal means a return to hyper-mobility.
In the absence of a vaccine, how societies respond to both the virus and governments’ attempts to mitigate its effects will matter greatly. As elsewhere, in Europe the pandemic has tested the strength of social solidarity. If there is a strong social conviction that the health of the individual is best protected by preserving the health of all, then governments merely have to offer a set of guidelines on how to put this instinct into practice.
This was to some extent the experience of the first set of lockdowns in the European spring. This time, however, the libertarian far right is far more organised. They see any limitation to personal freedom to ensure community safety as intolerable tyranny. Compounding this is the fact many Europeans are wary of their governments’ poor track records in fostering meaningful social cohesion.
Without community acceptance of government initiatives, the question shifts from organising communities’ desire to protect their vulnerable members to one of police-led enforcement. It is potentially a blunt and alienating approach that erodes whatever goodwill remains.
Europe’s coming winter will test not only the resilience of its health system, but the strength of its social fabric.
Europe is again in the grip of a COVID-19 resurgence, with outbreak hot-spots in the United Kingdom, Spain and France each reporting thousands of new daily cases.
The level of infections are now higher than in March and April across many countries, after restrictions were significantly eased over summer. But now many areas are being forced to re-introduce varying levels of restrictions, though most countries are resisting nationwide lockdowns.
Second wave peaks are significantly higher than in the first wave
During the country’s first wave, France’s daily new case numbers reached a peak of just over 7,500 on March 31. Its new peak was recorded on Sunday with 26,675 new cases in the previous 24 hours, over three times higher than the first peak.
In the first wave, the UK had a peak number of 7,860 daily cases on April 10, which has jumped to a peak of 17,540 on October 8.
However, these are only the new cases reported from the testing sites. These numbers are known to underestimate the true number of infections, because many people have no symptoms and so are unlikely to get tested.
Researchers from the Imperial College London tested 175,000 people in the UK — whether they reported symptoms or not. They found 824 were positive, and used this to estimate there were around 45,000 new daily infections between September 18 and October 5. This would amount to more than double, or often more than triple, the official daily new positive tests results reported during that time.
‘Restriction fatigue’ bites amid European summer
Summer is the vacation season and a “golden goose” for European economies, so many countries lifted various restrictions to enable tourism.
Many people had a sense of regained freedom and a feeling of lesser need to adhere to physical distancing measures over the summer months. This was reflected in another ongoing research project by Imperial College. Researchers found many Europeans surveyed had relaxed their behaviour in the last few months, compared to in April.
Indeed, Europe’s second wave points to an element of restriction fatigue after months of restrictions on daily life and with economies faltering. WHO Europe director Dr Hans Kluge acknowledged “It is easy and natural to feel apathetic and demotivated, to experience fatigue”. He called on European authorities to listen to the public and work with them in “new, innovative ways” to reinvigorate the fight against COVID-19.
Restrictions are returning, but no national lockdowns yet
In recent weeks, many European leaders have announced targeted, localised restrictions, but no national lockdowns as yet.
The French government reimposed restrictions in many urban areas, including limiting the capacity of restaurants and classrooms, and closing bars and gyms.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez introduced travel restrictions to and from Madrid, which inspired protests and earned his government a “criminal and totalitarian” label from dissenters and their political opponents on the far-right.
Like France and Spain, the UK government is not planning to reimpose a national lockdown despite a record number of cases. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has opted for “a balanced approach” enforcing a three-tier alert system across England — medium, high, and very high — depending on the severity of outbreaks.
Before the emergence of the European second wave, Germany was a role model for its successful approach to combating the virus. This image will be hard to sustain though, as in the past few days the country has experienced its highest daily increase in cases since its peak in early April. The country’s capital Berlin, famed for its rich nightlife, entered its first curfew in 70 years from October 10.
Europe could look to the success of countries like Vietnam
By contrast, several South-East Asian countries are doing exceptionally well. Over the past two weeks, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia have reported around 0-5 daily new cases on average despite dense populations. It’s important to note there may be undercounting in case counts and deaths, but this doesn’t detract from the overwhelming success these countries have had.
Vietnam’s total number of cases is just 1,113, which is extremely low for a population of nearly 100 million. One tactic used by health authorities has been targeted testing, where they’ve focused on high-risk individuals and on buildings and neighbourhoods where there have been confirmed cases. Health authorities have also implemented extensive contact tracing, and aimed to identify those at risk of exposure regardless of symptoms. The country also set up quarantine facilities for infected people and international travellers, minimising spread inside households.
In Thailand, health volunteers have been visiting areas of clusters, triaging cases, sending people with symptoms to medical clinics for testing, and dispelling rumours and misinformation. They have also taught people how to properly wash their hands, emphasised the importance of masks, and dispensed hand sanitisers. In addition, the Thai Department of Disease Control has been contacting hospital staff from every province to ensure they know how to detect cases and how they can prevent outbreaks in the hospitals. This education, and the army of volunteers, have helped keep total number of cases to just over 3,500.
Despite having a relatively weak medical system, Cambodia’s total case numbers are extremely low at just 283, with zero deaths. The country has conducted extensive contact tracing, utilising 2,900 health-care workers who were trained in contact tracing at the start of the year. The country also went into a strict lockdown early in the pandemic including by shutting schools and entertainment venues. Travel has also been restricted. Almost 80% of Cambodia’s population lives in rural areas with a low population density, making it easier to manage the spread and to allocate resources to denser, higher-risk locations such as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
Having experienced the SARS and avian flu epidemics, many Asian countries took the threat of COVID-19 seriously right from the beginning. In addition, many countries implemented strict mask wearing and physical distancing early. Targeted testing, education and the involvement of the community are critical in responding to COVID-19.
Maximilian de Courten, Health Policy Lead and Professor in Global Public Health at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University; Bo Klepac Pogrmilovic, Research Fellow in Health Policy at the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy, Victoria University, and Vasso Apostolopoulos, Professor of Immunology and Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research Partnerships, Victoria University