Europe is in the grip of a resurgent spell of the COVID-19 pandemic with several nations implementing strict curbs, in view of a surge in daily infections for the past few days, much to the chagrin of civilian populations in many pockets. The continent, now the epicentre of the virus, alone accounts for nearly two-thirds of new infections across the globe just ahead of Christmas and New Year festivities.
Despite protests by civilians, the government in Austria implemented its fourth national lockdown on Monday, days after announcing that vaccination against COVID would be legally mandatory from February 2022. Under the lockdown norms, citizens have been asked to work from home and shops selling non-essential items will be shut down. Schools, however, will remain open for students who require face-to-face classed. The curbs will be effective till December 12, and the government will reassess the situation again after 10 days. Austria on Thursday logged 15,145 new cases of COVID-19 while reporting a rise in hospitalization, deaths and the number of patients in the ICU. The country has fully vaccinated 65 per cent of its population.
Germany, which is in the grip of a fourth wave of COVID-19 is also mulling tougher curbs to keep infections in check. As part of the current restrictions, only vaccinated persons are allowed to restaurants and hotels while authorities have shut down traditional Christmas markets ahead of the festival.
In what reflected the government’s serious concern about the pandemic, Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn on Monday said that “by the end of this winter everyone in Germany will either be vaccinated, recovered or dead”. At 68 per cent, the country has the lowest vaccination rate in Western Europe and has logged 30,643 new infections – 7,000 more than last week and the highest since the beginning of the pandemic – in the past 24 hours.
Countries including the Netherlands and Slovakia too on Monday prohibited unvaccinated individuals from accessing non-essential stores or shopping malls as a precautionary measure. The Netherlands, which has implemented a three-week partial lockdown on Wednesday reported 20,000 new infections. At least two people were injured in police firing in Rotterdam where protests broke out on Friday against the government’s plans for a COVID vaccine pass and ban on fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
Unvaccinated people in Slovakia have also been barred from attending public events or gatherings and have been asked to get themselves tested at least twice a week, to move around.
France which is witnessing a fifth wave of the pandemic, logged 20,000 cases on Wednesday, the highest since August 25.
Expressing worry on the trend, Dr Hans Kluge, regional director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently said that 50,000 more deaths could happen by March next year if countries do not take urgent action against the surge in infections.
What triggered the fresh wave?
Experts attribute the spike in infections to a resurgence of the highly-infectious Delta variant, low vaccination rates and the winter season.
“The onset of winter plays a role, though no one can predict how big or small the surge would be. It is not that this virus spreads faster in winters…there is no evidence for that. But most of the activities happen indoors because of the low temperatures. And that kind of setting is conducive for transmission,” Virander Singh Chauhan, a scientist and former director of Delhi-based International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology told Indian Express.
The United Kingdom recently hosted the climate change conference in Glasgow, which saw the participation of over 30,000 people in the span of two weeks, making it the largest conference organized by the country so far. Despite attendees being tested daily, reports said the conference served as a hotspot for the virus and produced several infections, accounts of which authorities refuse to divulge.
A congregation of around 50,000 to 1 lakh people, mostly protesters, was also seen outside the venue during the course of the two-week long conference.
In an interview with CNN, Sam McConkey, head of the International Health and Tropical Medicine department at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dublin called the surge in cases is “an epidemic of the unvaccinated”.
“About 10 per cent of our population over 12 is unvaccinated, and we’re seeing an epidemic in those people, predictably,” he said.
Experts have said that until countries don’t vaccinate around mid-90 per cent of their populations, the unvaccinated would continue to increase the transmission of the virus.
Even as the highly-transmissible Delta variant compounds the issue, experts said complacency in following COVID-19 protocols like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing has led to a spike in cases.
Raft Reintjes, professor of epidemiology and public health surveillance at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in Germay says the complacency is driven by “corona fatigue” among people who are tired of the pandemic.
Scientists also suspect the number of breakthrough infections is quite high in Europe compared to countries like India, which already witnessed a devastating surge of Delta cases in April-May this year. They said, unlike in the summer months when it lay low, the highly-infectious variant may have generated the ability to bypass the immunity (developed due to the vaccines), leading to a spike in infections in Europe, which during the earlier waves had been subject to milder variants of the virus.
Even though most of the countries in Europe have vaccinated more than 60 per cent of their population, vaccine hesitancy, witnessed in the past two months, is also being projected as one of the reasons behind the rise in cases. The resistance against vaccines has led to a rise in cases both among the vaccinated and unvaccinated sections.
What’s the solution?
The WHO has called for an uptick in vaccination, implementation of basic public health measures and new medical treatments to help fight the rise in infections.
Stating that mandatory vaccination should be seen as a “last resort”, Dr Kluge said what is needed first are measures like COVID pass as well as a “legal and social debate about the issue”.