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The EU’s national leaders pledged Thursday to follow “the best available science” in their coronavirus response. But after weeks of resisting that same expert advice, they’re now chasing the wave.
With infections skyrocketing, countries are reimposing containment measures every day. But the reluctant and haphazard responses across Europe show how political leaders spent the recent weeks in collective denial.
Even now, they’re bedeviled by the same quandary they faced since the pandemic started: Following the scientific advice will save lives but also stands to devastate economies.
The tension between public health guidance and the political and economic reality was on stark display in Berlin Wednesday, as Germany announced new restrictions and Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian State Premier Markus Söder urged fast and decisive action.
“It would be better to be in front of the wave,” said Söder. “You do not run after the wave.”
EU leaders have reopened schools and eased other restrictions in recent months.
But it’s clear the second wave of new infections is already crashing over European states, including Germany and Söder’s own Bavaria.
Fearful of the economic cost of new lockdowns and leery of political backlash from citizens desperate for normal life, EU leaders have reopened schools and eased other restrictions in recent months, in what has turned out to be false hope that the worst of the crisis had passed.
Even countries that thought they beat the virus in the spring are seeing high case numbers, such as Portugal and nations in Central and Eastern Europe.
Some scientists say they’re aghast at the complacency of political leaders, given that they had projected caseloads would rise in any event with the colder weather and social life returning indoors.
“We see exactly the same thing happening again — it’s like we have a communal loss of memory of what happened six months ago,” said Debby Bogaert, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh.
Some countries are seeing the backlash over their countries’ management of the first wave take a more serious turn. In France, Health Minister Olivier Véran and former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, among others, had their homes searched as part of a government inquiry into their handling of the pandemic.
And in some cases, the contradictions between reality and policy this week bordered on the absurd.
European Council President Charles Michel insisted EU leaders meet in person this week, only to have Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin leave to self-isolate after each of them discovered they had been in contact in recent days with someone who tested positive.
Last week, on the same day that European Parliament President David Sassoli said he was self-isolating, the Parliament announced it would resume plenary sessions in Strasbourg. On Thursday, Parliament reversed course, saying travel to Strasbourg would be impossible.
Meanwhile, the push by national politicians to resume normal life seemed to clash with scientific advice and defy the visible increase in reported infections.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron finally took take action on Wednesday by announcing curfews in nine cities, nearly a week after the country registered a record more than 26,000 cases in one day. In March, by contrast, it was only around the daily total of 1,000 before the government required everyone to stay at home.
Other countries are still wavering.
Belgium has tried a mix of measures since August, when cases began jumping, but it kept bars and many night establishments open. It was only in recent weeks as hospitals began to fill up — and with the entire country classified as a red zone — that tougher measures were announced.
Across Europe, public health experts had long predicted a second wave and warned that the virus would continue to pose a grave threat until the advent of vaccines — which still remain several months away, if not longer.
And yet, some governments actively chose not to implement experts’ recommendations for harsher measures. The Dutch government’s team of experts complained at the end of September that the government was sidelining them on issues such as masks. Then, last Tuesday, it announced a sharp U-turn with a partial lockdown.
“They wait and wait and wait, whereas people in public health … know that you need to act now — not in a week or next month” — Debby Bogaert, professor at the University of Edinburgh
In Ireland, experts recommended the country implement the strictest measures possible in early October. But the government decided to keep bars, restaurants and shops open, arguing that experts didn’t understand the economic consequences of such extreme measures.
Meanwhile, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ignored an expert committee’s recommendation to impose a “circuit breaker” for nearly a month.
Bogaert lamented that politicians are moving at “their own speed” — and it’s much slower than experts would move.
“They wait and wait and wait, whereas people in public health … know that you need to act now — not in a week or next month — because then you’re running again after the fact,” she said.
Summer is over
After the spring lockdowns, many countries encouraged summer travel to recoup financial losses. In May, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis even called tourism the “epilogue” of lockdowns. as he pushed for a quick re-opening.
But not all politicians had their heads in the beach sand.
In July, the EU health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, urged countries to use the summer and get prepared for a possible second wave of cases in the fall, pushing for more testing, contact tracing and interoperable tracing apps.
But infections increased — albeit slowly — over the summer in some countries, and by early September, the numbers were rising across much of Europe.
On September 24, Kyriakides repeated her call.
“We cannot lower our guard,” said Kyriakides, who was herself forced to isolate briefly because of an infection risk. “It is abundantly clear that this crisis is not behind us. We are at a decisive moment, and everyone has to act decisively.”
Her challenge: The EU has virtually no legal authority over health policy — and national governments remain unwilling to take cues from Brussels.
On September 4, for example, the Commission rolled out a proposal to increase coordination among EU countries on travel restrictions. EU national ministers dawdled over the plan for five weeks, and ultimately approved it only after watering down provisions on how governments would treat travelers coming from higher-risk zones.
State of the science
There are scientific explanations for the rising caseload in Europe. For one thing, countries have drastically increased testing.
Another clear trend is that the virus is now circulating largely among healthier young people, which has meant overall fewer hospitalization rates and fatalities. Moreover, doctors know much more about how to treat COVID-19 with drugs such as remdesivir and dexamethasone.
“The death rate — given the age distribution and given the incidence rate — will be exactly what it was in the spring” — Karl Lauterbach, German Social Democrats parliamentarian
But some warn a rise in deaths is now almost certain — it’s simply a matter of math.
“The death rate — given the age distribution and given the incidence rate — will be exactly what it was in the spring,” said Karl Lauterbach, a German scientist and parliamentarian from the Social Democrats. And the situation will be worse, he said, in countries that “postpone important, necessary measures the longest.”
Still, many scientific experts have been reluctant to declare that full-scale lockdowns are necessary, which has given some politicians more reason to hold off.
In a paper published in the Lancet in September, scientists pointed to restrictions on movement in 82 countries around the globe: “Although such measures might have saved lives, they have come at a heavy socioeconomic cost.”
At the same time, it’s difficult to devise more targeted strategies. In September, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control Director Andrea Ammon declined to recommend that all EU countries close bars and restaurants. Instead, she urged countries to be vigilant in surveillance to identify hotspots and try reducing opening hours or limiting capacity.
Similarly, in a communication published Thursday, the Commission urged young people to “do more” to halt the spread.
Bahar Tuncgenc, a psychologist at the University of Nottingham, said government should not blame citizens but communicate more clearly.
“Governments need to be transparent about what their goals are, what the plan is and what the possibilities are moving forward,” Tuncgenc said.
She said she was perplexed at why politicians didn’t prepare the public for a resurgence. “There’s no way governments didn’t know that this would continue into the winter,” Tuncgenc said. “All scientific advice was saying that.”
Elisa Braun, Nette Nöstlinger, Eline Schaart, Barbara Moens, Jakob Hanke Vela, Paola Tamma and John Rega contributed reporting to this article.
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