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23rd Jan 2021

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Coronavirus: Will a second wave divide Europe again?

  • Some countries have already reported pressure on hospitals - but the arrival of the flu season is expected to increase the burden on healthcare facilities (Photo: M.G.N. - Marcel ON OF)

Since Covid-19 was first recorded late last year in China, the virus has quickly spread around the world - upending everyday life and testing the world's response to a global crisis.

While the amount of new deaths worldwide has dropped well below levels seen at the beginning of the year, cases are rising again. As of Tuesday (22 September), there were over 31 million global cases of coronavirus and around 965,000 deaths.

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Larger countries seem to have a higher amount of both cases and deaths. But the numbers tell complex Covid-19 stories as there are many other meaningful factors in play - including testing capacity, demographic profiles of the countries and data-collection criteria.

While the global understanding about this new respiratory disease has steadily increased since the first outbreaks, how effectively the world is responding to the second wave of Covid-19 remains unclear - especially amid fears over what is dubbed "vaccine nationalism", or seizing the first batches of doses for richer states that can pay.

In Europe, new weekly cases have exceeded those reported in March. In total, more than four million cases of Covid-19 have been recorded with 226,500 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

"We have a very serious situation unfolding before us," warned the WHO's Europe director, Hans Kluge, adding that the new surge of Covid-19 cases in Europe could be partly explained by "the relaxation of public health and social measures, where authorities have been easing some of the restrictions and people have been dropping their guard".

Some countries, such as Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Montenegro, North Macedonia or Romania are seeing higher case numbers in September than they did earlier this year.

While Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and the UK, among others, are dealing with the much-feared second wave.

In Spain, coronavirus infections continue to rise, with the capital registering 746 cases per 100,000 inhabitants - more than double the national average.

As a result, as of Monday (21 September) the region of Madrid decided to impose a partial lockdown on about one million people who live in some of the poorer areas of the city - a move that was met with widespread protests.

Spain and France, which both have the highest number of new coronavirus cases in the EU, have reported pressure on hospitals in the hardest-hit cities. And the arrival of flu season is expected to increase the burden on healthcare facilities across the continent.

Meanwhile, the UK is currently trying to avoid a nationwide lockdown by increasing the number of local and targeted lockdowns.

Spain was already one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe. But after one of the world's strictest lockdowns, a "new normality" of relaxed measures and attempts to save the tourist summer season have contributed to the epidemic's resurgence.

However, experts warned that another lockdown is unsustainable in economic terms.

Meanwhile, the much-feared second wave does not seem to have materialised yet in the epicentre of the first outbreak in Europe: Italy has seen a surge in the number of cases, but well below its neighbours.

While Italy is reporting around 1,500 new cases daily, France and Spain have each recently reported about 10,000 cases in a day.

"Italy is better today than other countries, but great prudence is still needed to avoid rendering the sacrifices made so far," Italian health minister Roberto Speranza said on Monday.

Last week, Romania extended again its state of alert until mid-October due to a steady increase in the number of coronavirus cases since July.

From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, some member states have been taking unilateral measures - including export bans on medical supplies or the closure of borders.

When reopening after lockdowns, EU countries pledged to put forward a coordinated approach for the summer holidays - especially for the internal and external borders of the EU.

However, in reality some countries opened swiftly and with almost no restrictions in place, while others opted for "travel bubbles" or lists of approved countries whose citizens were allowed to enter.

Additionally, some countries decided to imposed quarantine or coronavirus testing results on travellers, while others allow entry into their territory without any restrictions.

But EU capitals have not even been able to agree on how long the quarantine period should be. Despite the fact that the WHO said last week that the 14-day quarantine period is a "conservative estimate" of how long people may be infectious, warning European countries to follow scientific advice.

As a result, EU countries have been unable to put forward a truly coordinated response to the challenges that the pandemic keeps bringing - ignoring, to some extent, the European Commission's calls for coordination.

After the summer season, the same disorder was seen again when Hungary unilaterally decided to reintroduce travel restrictions on almost all foreigners, in a bid to halt coronavirus infections.

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