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Europe rearms before the second wave

It’s here. The second wave – the feared return with force of the pandemic that appeared in China last winter, which forced the imprisonment of half of humanity, which paralyzed the economy and has left more than a million dead – has settled in Europe, global epicenter of the coronavirus in the fall of this long 2020. Everything seems like a bad dream, a repetition of what was experienced between the months of last March and May, when the first wave of covid-19 hit the continent.

Again, confinements arrive, the most efficient measures available while waiting for vaccines, but with considerable social, psychological and democratic costs. Again, the risk of saturation of hospitals and more death and illness, although – and the difference is not less – this time with the experience of the previous wave, a greater capacity to test and a better scientific knowledge of the virus and treatments.

Again, the impression that what was to come could have been anticipated, that the rulers have once again been overwhelmed and finally forced to impose at the last minute the archaic restrictions that have been used since time immemorial when there were no medical remedies.

“We must be humble before the force of nature,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday when announcing a new national confinement in England – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have autonomy in this health crisis – after resisting the pressures of their own scientists. “In this country, as in the rest of Europe, the virus is spreading faster than even expected in the worst-case scenarios,” he said.

Johnson is the latest to join the lockdowns and other measures adopted to restrict freedom of movement in the face of the unstoppable advance of a second wave that, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, “will undoubtedly be harsher and more lethal than the first.” and that he has admitted that he has “overwhelmed” Europeans. Overwhelmed and exhausted, as another leader has said, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, when speaking of a “double enemy”: the coronavirus and fatigue from the coronavirus and preventive measures.

The second wave shows the failures in the de-escalations: the strategy of testing, tracking and isolation has visibly not worked in all countries. It raises a question mark about the ability of Western democracies to manage such a crisis. The economic and moral coup: a return to the starting square. If in the first wave the fashion book was the novel Plague, by Albert Camus, in this could be an essay by the same author, The myth of Sisyphus, a character in Greek mythology condemned to climb a rock to a mountain and to see how, when approaching the summit, the rock falls and must go up again forever.

Macron announced in his speech a new confinement, somewhat looser than that of the spring, because, like Johnson’s, it allows the opening of schools. Other countries – Austria and Portugal also joined this Saturday – impose other restrictions, if not so strict, aimed at curbing the accelerated spread of the virus on the continent, which accounts for almost half of the new confirmed cases in the world and a third of the new deaths.

“If things are allowed to progress unchecked, we are heading towards catastrophe, towards an unsustainable saturation of health systems,” says epidemiologist Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “No alternative. Forceful measures must be taken, measures that all of Europe is taking at the moment ”.

In Germany, the same day that Macron decreed the new confinement, Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with the federal states a partial closure of public life as of Monday. Bars and restaurants will close, except to sell takeout. Cultural events will be canceled and professional athletes will play behind closed doors. The schools remain open, and also the stores, as long as customers respect the physical distance.

In the last 24 hours, 19,059 infections and 100 deaths have been registered, a new record in this country of 83 million inhabitants that aroused international admiration for its management of the pandemic. “You have to act now,” Merkel said.

There is no country that resists

In the second wave, there is no country that resists. Not central and eastern Europe, less affected by the first wave. In the Czech Republic, one in three covid-19 tests are positive. It is the European country with the most hospitalized patients per 100,000 people.

In Italy, which made it through the summer smoothly, the epidemic is soaring. In some areas the threshold of 40% occupancy of beds in hospitals has been exceeded. Cinemas, theaters and gyms have been closed throughout the country for a week and bars and restaurants must close at six in the afternoon. These restrictions have sparked protests in several cities, in some cases leading to riots. Regions such as Lazio, Campania, Lombardy, Calabria or Sicily have ordered a night curfew.

And in the United Kingdom, the number of daily deaths from covid-19 already stands at an average of about 300, and exceeds 60,000 deaths from the disease. Under the restrictions announced this Saturday, effective from Thursday until December 2, pubs, bars and restaurants will remain closed. Stores and businesses, except those that sell necessary consumer goods, will cease their activity. Citizens will be urged to stay home and opt for telecommuting. The Government wants to keep colleges and universities open at all costs.

“We are running after the virus, for the moment, the virus runs faster than us,” says François Heisbourg, advisor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies laboratory of ideas. “With regard to the French, Spanish and British governments, it is clear that the appropriate measures are taken a week or two late, and these are usually the crucial weeks. To a large extent this explains why mortality rates are higher than elsewhere. But even countries without this delay, such as Germany, Poland or the Czech Republic, suffer a second wave stronger than the first. And the end is not in sight ”.

Everything is going fast. A few weeks ago, words like curfew or lockdown were taboo. Six months ago, at the end of the first home confinement, a “new normal” was announced. “The hardest has passed, the most difficult has been left behind,” Spanish President Pedro Sánchez said in May, and a month later, at the end of the French de-escalation, Macron celebrated “this first victory against the virus.” But summer came. And many lowered their guard. The citizens? The governments?

“It is difficult for me to accept the notion of error or lack in the management of epidemics. In a democracy, politics is the reflection of public opinion, ”says Flahault. “When a large part of the population decides to go to the beach, to bars and restaurants and celebrate a little rediscovered freedom, it is difficult to impose something more than putting on the mask on the train and bus.

Measurements arrive

The measures have finally arrived, although Europe has learned something: a common feature in the new confinements is the will to keep educational and economic activity open as much as possible. In the midst of the never-ending pandemic, it is risky to draw conclusions about the geopolitical impact, about the effects on the credibility of the European model after unequal management.

“In April, during the first wave, he would have said that Europe was not reacting in solidarity. Now I think we don’t have this problem. This is demonstrated by the European response with the recovery plan adopted in July with 750,000 million euros. The progress of these months is historic ”, says Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome. “Maybe in the summer we would have had to coordinate before the confinements of the second wave. The responsibility is not so much of the European institutions, but of the member states ”.

“For now we can say that China is not doing as badly as others, but we do not know where we will be in a year,” says Heisbourg. “The Chinese don’t know either, which explains why China is very nervous about this issue. From the moment some cases are detected in a city, as in Qingdao a few days ago, all the inhabitants are tested to try to squash the virus before it flares up again. The Chinese are aware of the fragility of the situation, and this is a real advantage. We may not be afraid enough ”.

With information from Ana Carbajosa (Berlin), Rafa de Miguel (London) Y Lorena Pacho (Rome).

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