High alert over spike of coronavirus infections in Europe

Healthcare workers preparing to test a resident for the coronavirus in Barcelona, Spain, on Aug 26, 2020.
Healthcare workers preparing to test a resident for the coronavirus in Barcelona, Spain, on Aug 26, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON - A grave spectre is haunting Europe: The threat of the return of the coronavirus pandemic, as the number of new recorded infections continues to rise in the continent's most populous countries.

The sharp jump in infection statistics has put European governments on high alert, particularly as holidaymakers return home to big cities after the traditional August break, and teachers and students throughout the continent prepare for the start of the school year after months of disruption.

But all European governments are eager to avoid reimposing the blanket lockdown and other drastic controls on the freedom of movement seen in the earlier stages of the pandemic.

Overall, the political narrative in Europe has changed from a determination to do everything to reduce infections, towards a new approach which balances control measures with the need to allow national economies to recover from the deepest recession since World War II.

Spain has the dubious honour of leading the reinfection wave in Europe, with about 8,000 new cases being reported on a daily basis recently, or just over 150 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants, a key statistical reference point used by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The second-highest infection rate is in the small island-state of Malta which has registered 120 new infection cases, followed by over 60 new cases for France.

By comparison, Britain and Germany are recording only around 20 cases per 100,000, although in both countries, infection trends are also slowly edging up.

The fact that countries such as Spain, Malta or France are leading the reinfection wave also provides an indication on the key driver: All are prime tourist destinations.

Europe's tourism industry - key to the economy of some of the continent's more vulnerable countries - started opening for business last month with all the safety regulations in place.

Beaches were cluttered with signs asking holidaymakers to keep a distance of 2m from each other, hotels cancelled buffet dinners and police forces claimed to be at hand to enforce safety measures.

But in reality, bars and nightclubs largely ignored the rules, and governments did not seem too bothered either; alcohol consumption not only produces large profit margins for operators but, together with the sun, is also an essential holiday ingredient for many Europeans.


The result is that infections are largely among young people. And this means that, at least for the moment, higher infections do not result in a greater number of people hospitalised in a critical condition, or in a spike of those killed by the virus.

A tweak in the way European governments count the number of fatalities is also keeping these figures down; mortality statistics now only include those dead within 21 days after they were diagnosed with the virus, thereby excluding the elderly who may have been infected, but who could have died from other natural causes.

The low mortality and the lack of immediate pressure on medical services allow governments to adopt a more relaxed response.

Upon his return from an almost three-week holiday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez reinstated the tradition of addressing his nation daily. "The data isn't good. The situation is worrisome," he admitted. But, he added, "we can't allow the pandemic to take over our lives again".

So, instead of a total lockdown, the government has left public health decisions with the 19 regional governments. But it remains determined to open schools as planned.

France is adopting the same approach of delaying infection rates, rather than attempting to eliminate them. "There is no such thing as a 'zero risk' society," French President Emmanuel Macron said in a recent televised address.

The British government, accused of mishandling the initial phase of the crisis, is jumpier and keeps slapping new quarantine orders on some European countries.


But elsewhere in Europe, the determination is not to return to the old blanket lockdown policies; nationwide restrictions such as those implemented in New Zealand are no longer considered practical for Europeans.

Everything may change, however, if the infections which now affect younger citizens spread to other age groups, as they will when holidaymakers return to their families.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran admits that this is already happening in his country, with infections rising among the elderly in the city of Marseille. "We have to avoid this situation at all costs," he warns.