Around Europe: How a surge in Covid-19 cases has impacted life in different countries

Around Europe: How a surge in Covid-19 cases has impacted life in different countries
AFP
Many governments around Europe are ramping up restrictions in a desperate bid to stem the resurgence of Covid-19 and avoid more damaging lockdowns and ever-tighter rules. Some countries are in a better position than others, as our team of journalists around Europe report.

This week the World Health Organization says soaring numbers of Covid-19 cases in Europe is of “great concern”

 “Daily numbers of cases are up, hospital admissions are up,” said the WHO's regional director for Europe Hans Kluge.

But the situation varies greatly between different countries as does the measures governments are introducing.

Here's the latest on the situation around Europe from our journalists in each country.

'Political infighting is crippling the battle to keep Spaniards safe', Fiona Govan, Madrid

This week Catalonia ordered the closure of all restaurants and bars in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus while here in Madrid where the infection rate is more than double and Covid-19 patients take up 38 percent of ICU beds (compared to 19 percent in Catalonia) daily life goes on pretty much as normal.

It’s true that thanks to the recent state of emergency we can’t leave the city but during last weekend’s bank holiday the capital was rammed as families and friends got together to enjoy the last of the warm weather.

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In leafy El Pardo, a suburb just within the limits of Madrid city long lines formed outside the chiringuitos as locals mixed with ‘domingueros’, the name for those who would normally escape the city for day trips at weekends and bank holidays – sought to enjoy a long lunch after a walk along the river.

In Malasaña’s Plaza Dos de Mayo groups of young people still gather in tight groups, masks pulled down onto their chins as they share a smoke and at lunchtimes it’s still hard to find a table on the busy terrazas.

But the evening restaurant trade is practically at a standstill as the measure which forces restaurants to stop serving food by 10pm deters a nation of diners who don’t traditionally sit down to eat until well after 9pm.

The difference in strategies of Spain’s two largest cities illustrates the lack of common policy across Spain to contain the so-called second wave, something that may change next week under a new plan to introduce a nationwide four tier coronavirus alert system.

One thing is clear: political infighting is crippling the battle to keep citizens safe triggering confusion and anger at the political establishment, while doing little to protect the economy.

'These new restrictions are far better than Italy's lockdown in spring,' Clare Speak, Bari

Italy’s latest set of coronavirus rules arrived this week, after being tightened at the last minute when the number of new cases suddenly leapt up. 

Some say the rules aren’t strict enough. Businesses and schools are still open, and most things can continue almost as normal – though we have to wear masks whenever we are outside the house, parties at home are frowned upon (though not actually banned), some sports have been stopped, and travel restrictions are coming back.

But the vast majority of the public are on board, with 80% in favour of the current restrictions according to a poll this week. After all, these rules are much less inconvenient than Italy’s strict lockdown, during which we couldn't even leave the house without a permission slip.

The question everyone is asking now is whether that could happen again. Italy’s prime minister is no longer ruling out another nationwide lockdown. But for now, local lockdowns in the worst-hit areas are much more likely.

The government is widely expected to tighten these rules again within the next week or so. It all depends on the numbers. As Italian politicians keep reminding us, Italy’s numbers are still far lower than in some neighbouring countries. But how long can they stay that way? 

Either way, they feel high. The daily number of new cases here has now exceeded anything seen in March, with the last couple of days each bringing a new record number of new infections. 

This is thought to be at least partly due to Italy having vastly increased testing capacity. But the more telling numbers – of hospitalisations, ICU admissions and deaths – are also rising. We may be behind the curve, but it looks like Italy’s “second wave” is here.

There is an important difference this time around, though: Italy was blindsided when it became the first European country to suffer an outbreak in February. But this time, the country is prepared.

The public did their part by following the rules during lockdown, and the government did use that time to strengthen the health service and get a functional track and trace system in place.

Now 83% of people in the country say they feel ready, practically and psychologically, to face the second wave.

During the first months of the pandemic, the rest of the world watched Italy to get a sense of what they might be in for. Now, Italy is watching and waiting, and hoping we learned enough lessons the first time around. 

'Norwegians are following the guidance with sullen compliance', Agnes Erickson, Oslo

The days are getting shorter and the cooler temperatures have residents preparing for winter under a pandemic. It’s been 31 weeks since the first wave of the Coronavirus sent Norway into quarantine.  The government has both loosened and tightened national restrictions since then, as well as beginning to differentiate rules from county to county. Residents living in Norway appear to be following the new guideline updates with sullen compliance.

It’s not all grim news, this week's updates revealed some happy headlines for families living apart. Grandparents living outside of EU countries are finally being allowed to go to Norway to visit their grandchildren in the country reported VG. “Many children have taken contact and asked their grandparents to come to Norway,” exclaimed Prime Minister Erna Solberg. 

NRK reported another cautiously hopeful news segment showing that the numbers from the infection tracking team at Folkehelseinstituttet show very few infection cases both in preschools and schools. 

There are many neighborhoods that would have once been open to Halloween customs such as trick or treating but have decided to forgo the child friendly tradition this year. 

Many traditional julebords, or holiday parties, business’s sponsor have been cancelled due to the government asking companies to look after their employees health and wellbeing.  In anticipation for a slower Christmas season, some restaurants have started marketing campaigns directly to  employers, encouraging them to buy their employees gift cards to their restaurant with the funds they would be using for a holiday party that originally was supposed to be at their venue. 

A lot of people who are planning on celebrating their birthdays have sent out invites with reminders warning their guests they might have to cancel if the regulations are suddenly changed. Others have been inventive and in expectancy for the limit of persons allowed at private gatherings to lessen, some have chosen to have multiple mini celebrations throughout the week with less people in attendance.

The possible cancelation on party invites, smaller gatherings, and restaurants new marketing schemes, are all signs of a society who is handling the pandemic day by day with tentative caution.

'Swedish health authorities are warning people to up their game… but is anyone still listening?', Emma Löfgren, Stockholm

For this article, I was asked to write about any new coronavirus measures being rolled out in Sweden to curb what is now a clear rise in infections, and I find myself without much to say.

Because little seems to be changing.

From Monday onwards, it will be possible for regional authorities to bring in additional recommendations on top of the national guidelines (work from home if you can, avoid public transport if possible, wash your hands, don’t go to parties, keep a distance from other people).

But when I read the suggestions for possible future local recommendations, they sound more like an exasperated parent struggling to tell off a naughty child than an actual tightening of restrictions. “Be quiet… I said be quiet… I mean it… ok, but now I really, really mean it.”

Much of it is still left up to the individual. You’re not banned from public transport, but you should avoid using it. Don’t be in close contact with people who aren’t part of your household if possible. In some ways, this makes sense – it is simply not possible for everyone to avoid these things, and that’s ok. In other ways, it leaves it up to everyone’s own interpretation of what constitutes real need and choice – and creates disagreement and friction between people. 

Meanwhile, life goes on. We’re getting reports from some of our readers telling us that their employers are ordering desk workers to return to the workplace, despite the official guidelines still advising people to work from home if they can. Have we become so used to hearing the guidelines that we’ve started to tune them out, are they just part of the background noise?

Sweden this week passed 100,000 coronavirus cases. There has not yet been a corresponding rise in fatalities, but hospitals in certain regions are reporting an increase in patients with more serious symptoms, so it is clear that everyone needs to do what they can to pull it to a halt.

Health authorities have been warning people that it is now crucial that everyone step up their game. But without clear communication and tougher restrictions – is anyone still listening?

'We once again need forms to leave the house in France', Emma Pearson, Paris

It seems like we've moved back in time in France with the reappearance of the permission form for leaving the house.

Having an “attestation” with you was compulsory every time you left your home in March and April and now they're making a comeback, albeit in a more limited way.
 
From Saturday nine French cities – including Paris – will be under a nighttime curfew that will last at least a month and probably until December 1st. Anyone who needs to be out during curfew hours will need a form stating that they fall into one of the (few) exempt groups.
 
Obviously as a 40-year-old I rarely stay up past 9.30pm anyway, but this must be difficult for younger people and students embarking on their first year at university – a fact that French president Emmanuel Macron acknowledged when announcing the measure, saying “It's tough to be 20 in 2020”.
 
 
Of course these restrictions are nothing like the strict lockdown in the spring and they only affect certain areas – all cities, giving rise to a real country vs city divide in how our daily lives will be lived for the next month.
 
Despite dire predictions by some of riots, early polls show the French are broadly supportive of these measures and certainly here in Paris most people understand that the rapidly worsening health situation – 46 percent of the city's intensive care beds are now occupied by Covid-19 patients – justifies a radical solution.
 
Oh and by the way, for anyone wondering, Macron did NOT praise the UK's test and trace scheme in his speech, he said that more people in the UK and Germany had downloaded contact tracing apps than in France, where takeup of the StopCovid app has been spectacularly poor.
 
 
'Swiss officials are urgently discussing what new measures should be rolled out in their regions,' Helena Bachmann, Geneva

The number of infections in Switzerland has been climbing steadily and alarmingly, the proportion of positive tests having jumped from 5.4 to 10.2 percent in last week alone.

On Friday Switzerland recorded its highest-ever total of new infections—3,105 — almost tripling its highest number of cases registered during the peak of the pandemic.

Hospitalisations are also up, bringing an eerie sense of déja-vu, as hospitals are again getting ready to treat the influx of coronavirus patients. 

This situation has prompted Switzerland’s President Simonetta Sommaruga to warn the population on Thursday that we are about to be submerged by a full-blown second wave and urge everyone to take precautions “for the sake of our health and economy”. 

While the public has been aware of the possibility of a second wave, most of us were hoping we could avoid the kind of resurgence that other parts of Europe are experiencing.

That’s because authorities and health experts have been lolling us into a false sense of security, telling us that rising numbers reflect merely a handful of localised outbreaks and that Switzerland as a whole is safe. 

Now cantonal officials are urgently discussing what additional measures should be implemented in their regions.

Since the authorities repeatedly stated that they want to avoid another national lockdown, the measures are likely to include a more widespread and consistent use of masks in all indoor spaces, as well as a lower limit on the number of people allowed to gather in both public and private. 

Stricter measures are already being imposed in Switzerland’s two largest cities: in Zurich, masks are now required for all indoor events with more than 30 people and at outdoor gatherings exceeding 300 people.

In Geneva, new measures are even more stringent. Public events are restricted to a maximum of 15 people, and public ones are capped at 100 participants. 

The problem in Switzerland, like pretty much everywhere in Europe, is that in their desire to return to ‘normal’ life, people have become complacent and careless about maintaining distance and wearing masks. 

But now it’s obvious that we all need to once again practice the same compliance and discipline as we did in the spring.

And it’s time to re-learn an important lesson: that at least for now, the virus is invincible. We are not.

The latest rates around Europe from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

'No one in Germany wants a second lockdown, but are we wiling to make the sacrifices to avoid one?' Rachel Loxton, Berlin

Hello from Neukölln, Germany’s worst coronavirus hotspot, where 150 infections per 100,000 residents have been logged in the last week. 

This part of Berlin is known for its packed-out bars, cosy restaurants and its fairly young, international population. So it’s no surprise it’s taken the title that nobody wants. 

Angela Merkel has made two appeals within the last week directly to younger people, urging them to stop partying and to think of their grandparents as well as their future.

Merkel and the 16 state leaders met this week to thrash out a plan to get Germany through the second wave. 

And a second wave it is. On Friday the Robert Koch Institute for disease control reported 7,334 Covid-19 cases within a day – the highest daily level since the pandemic started. 

Around 70 districts in Germany are ‘hotspots’ with more than 50 infections per 100,000 residents in seven days. 

Although these numbers can’t be compared directly to spring (more people are being tested now), authorities are still panicking.

It seems impossible to think only a month or so ago Berlin still felt summery and light.  Almost overnight as the autumn darkness crept in and people moved inside, the number of cases shot up. 

The federal states have been scrambling to put a patchwork of confusing rules in place, such as travel restrictions on internal risk zones.

For the first time in 70 years a curfew was ordered in Berlin meaning bars and even sacred late night shops (Spätis) had to shut at 11pm (although that order was overturned in court on Friday).

“Dark times indeed,” said one friend who I don’t think has ever left a Berlin bar before 2am.

Personal responsibility is the order of the day from Merkel & co. The German obsession with ventilating rooms (Lüften), as well as hand washing, mask wearing and cutting down on contacts are the messages being pushed out to the public. 

One thing absolutely nobody wants is a second lockdown. But are we willing to make the social sacrifices to avoid that?

'Compared to other countries things in Denmark could be a lot worse', Michael Barrett, Copenhagen

The last week has seen Denmark post its lowest daily figure for new coronavirus infections since early September, but this low number came on a day when the total number of tests was also down.

The general sense is that new infections in the country are stable and that is borne out by the daily totals for new cases, which have generally been between 400-500. The number of hospitalised patients has likewise changed little, hovering at just over 100.

Unlike in a number of other European countries, there have been no major changes to Covid-19 restrictions in Denmark this week.

The restrictions include mandatory use of face masks at all times on public transport and when standing in cafes and restaurants; cafes and bars required to close at 10pm and no more than 50 people may assemble at any one time.

When compared with what other countries are going through, it’s easy to feel things could be worse.

There's a sense that, should the current situation be maintained until a vaccine comes along, the present restrictions can be put up with.

Nobody wants to end up in fear of widespread infection and hospitalisations, something that is still at bay for now”.

The perhaps most concerning recent development Denmark has seen with the virus concerns animal transmission. Rapid outbreaks at mink farms have necessitated the culling of hundreds of thousands of animals.

Minks are particularly susceptible to coronavirus and conditions on the farms, at which thousands of animals are packed closely in cages, enable rapid transmission and mutations in so-called virus “reservoirs”.

Health authorities are concerned that Covid-19 could mutate in minks into a form resistant to a future vaccine, before being passed back to humans.

'Austrians are growing more concerned both with the health situation but also unemployment,” Stefan Haderer, Vienna

With constantly rising numbers of COVID-19 infections (1.163 cases as of October 16) in Austria, the government has announced stricter measures for the next few days or next week, depending on the rise of cases. The mayor of Tyrol said today that this could also include curfews to prevent a total lock-down.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (Austrian People’s Party) and Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (The Greens), who form a coalition government, have reiterated their demand to take action on a regional basis in more severely affected provinces, such as Vienna, Salzburg and Tyrol. However, they also stress that stricter measures may be implemented nationwide very soon.

Some measures are required all over Austria: wearing masks in public transport, when entering restaurants, supermarkets, stores, municipality buildings, hospitals and other institutions. You can often spot younger people and children on buses, trams or subways in Vienna without a mask – controls and fines are rare.

Austrian health experts interviewed on the ORF (national broadcasting channel) advise against introducing stricter mask laws, e.g. to wear face masks even outside like in Slovenia (so far, only outdoor markets require this in Austria). Politicians of all parties are positive that Christmas markets can take place, however under strict regulations – such as a duty to wear masks.

Despite such general regulations, anti-Corona measures strongly vary in Austria’s 9 provinces: For instance, Vienna – with an average of about 400 infections a day – and Lower Austria require guests in restaurants, cafés and bars to register, either by filling in forms or QR codes, in order to improve contract tracing. This registration is about to be implemented in Tyrol, Upper Austria and Salzburg as well.

In some western provinces (Vorarlberg, Tyrol, Salzburg) pubs, inns and restaurants close at 10 p.m. Local politicians in Vienna, however, oppose earlier closing hours which the government would like to implement for every province – perhaps even in a couple of days.

In general the locals, especially the older ones, approve of the measures taken. But the young people sometimes find restrictions and ideas to ban alcohol way too harsh. 

The atmosphere was relaxed in summer, but now Austrians are more concerned – both about the health 
situation, the situation in schools (home schooling worries all parents) and rising numbers of unemployment.

 

 

 


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