Oct 15, 2020 - World

Special report: Europe braces for monster 2nd coronavirus wave

Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The pandemic has come storming back to Europe, and hope of a return to normality is being replaced by a much more ominous prospect: the return to lockdown.

The big picture: Case counts in countries like France and Spain have skyrocketed past the numbers seen during the spring peak. While that’s partially due to more widespread testing, it’s now clear that deaths are climbing too.

Breaking it down

In the first two weeks of August, a total of 668 people died of coronavirus across Spain, France, the U.K., Italy and Germany — remarkably low given the U.S., which has a similar population, was averaging roughly twice as many per day during that time.

  • Fast forward two months, to the first two weeks of October, and those countries have combined for 4,316 deaths — 6.5 times higher.
  • Spain (1,622 deaths), France (1,081) and the U.K. (1,012) have been hit hardest, but even Italy (401) and Germany (200) are recording more than three times as many deaths as they were two months ago.
  • Flash back to the first two weeks of April, though, and the five countries’ combined death total was 44,771ten times what they’re recording now.

The looming disaster

Sky-high case counts and a reluctance to impose full lockdowns mean the question is less whether these countries can quickly return to the relative calm of August, than whether they can avoid a return to April's brutal reality.

  • “We’re probably just seeing the beginning part of the increase in hospitalizations and deaths,” which tend to lag three or four weeks behind a spike in cases, says Stephen Kessler, a researcher at Harvard who models the spread of diseases including COVID-19.
  • But that doesn’t mean the unprecedented spike in cases across Europe will necessarily translate to unprecedented death tolls, Kessler says, both because of increased testing and improved treatments.

The outlook is nonetheless grim. Hans Kluge, the WHO’s director for Europe, said today that if the current trajectory holds, death rates will be four or five times higher in January than they were in April.

  • "It's time to step up. The message to governments is: don't hold back with relatively small actions to avoid the painful damaging actions we saw in the first round," Kluge said.
Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Used with permission.

But with weary populations and wounded economies, governments are highly reluctant to impose the sorts of strict lockdowns that snapped into place across Europe last March.

  • “The only thing that we know works and works very effectively is pretty strict lockdown," Kessler says. "That said, I do think that there’s a lot we can do in the middle ground to mitigate the spread of the virus."
  • It will be particularly important to prevent large gatherings that could become super-spreader events, he says.

What went wrong

The same politicians who are now ordering people to stay home and limit their contacts were only recently offering incentives to travel domestically or dine out.

The big picture: As Europe emerged from the protective crouch of lockdown, governments were anxious to revive their economies, and people seized the opportunity to resume something approximating "normal" life.

Countries like Spain and Italy opened their borders to tourists, while large gatherings returned swiftly in countries like the Czech Republic that weren't hit hard by the first wave.

  • As the weather began to change and complacency grew, riskier indoor gatherings became more common.
  • And as cases began to tick up after a lull throughout the summer, governments were hesitant to take action that would be politically unpalatable or jeopardize an already fragile economic recovery.

In many countries, spikes have been driven largely by younger people who are less likely to become seriously ill. But at least in the U.K., cases are now rising quickly among people over 65.

  • The arrival of winter — not to mention the holiday season — will exacerbate the challenges.
Illustration of a woman looking out from blinds with the EU flag printed on the blinds.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

What they're saying: "We must call especially on young people to do without a few parties now in order to have a good life tomorrow or the day after," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday.

  • “It’s hard to be 20 in 2020,” added French President Emmanuel Macron.

Driving the news

Macron announced Wednesday that Paris and eight other metro areas will be under a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m curfew for at least the next six weeks.

The big picture: Like other European leaders, he's is attempting to slow the spread through restrictions that are regional in scope and less severe than those imposed in the spring. The current uptick "justifies neither being inactive nor panicked," he said.

  • The Netherlands has gone a step further, closing all bars and restaurants nationwide for four weeks on Wednesday but keeping schools open.
  • In Germany, Merkel announced Wednesday that bars and restaurants in harder-hit areas will have to close by 11 p.m., while private gatherings in those areas will be limited to 10 people from just two households.
  • Catalonia has closed restaurants except for take-out, while travel in and out of Madrid has been curtailed.
  • The Czech Republic — which is recording the most cases in Europe, adjusted for population — has been one of the few countries thus far to close schools. Bars are also closed.
  • Poland, which is also being hit harder in the second wave than it was in the first, will introduce new restrictions on Monday under a tiered system. In "red zones" like Warsaw, weddings will be banned and gatherings limited to 10 people. In "yellow zones," restaurants will have to close at 9 p.m.
  • England is also facing new tiered restrictions, with Liverpool first to enter a local lockdown. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to implement a two-week "circuit breaker" lockdown to slow the spread and allow contact tracing to catch up.

What to watch: Kessler says the circuit breaker approach has worked on a small scale — such as on university campuses — but would be very difficult to execute effectively at a national level.

  • He believes a "lighter-touch lockdown" can bring the surge under control, but will require restrictions, particularly on indoor gatherings, to be in place for a longer period of time.

The bottom line: Europe's sacrifices in the spring made a relatively quiet summer possible. Decisions made in the fall will determine the course of what could be a brutal winter.

Go deeper: Second wave strikes a divided U.K.

Go deeper