Around Europe: How the relentless resurgence of coronavirus is causing unease and despair

Throughout Europe the mood is changing rapidly as stricter measures and even full lockdowns are imposed to try to stem the relentless resurgence of Covid-19 infections. Our journalists report on the situation in each country as Europe finds itself once again as the epicentre of the pandemic.

Around Europe: How the relentless resurgence of coronavirus is causing unease and despair

'Less panic, less uncertainty but a lot of despair as France enters second lockdown,' Ingri Bergo, Paris

“It’s déjà vu all over again.” John Lichfield, The Local’s political commentator in France summed up the general feeling here well in his analysis this week. 

Pretty suddenly, we find ourselves back at where we were in March, once again confined to our homes, allowed out only for a shortlist of essential activities, and only if we are in possession of a form to show police during any checks.

It’s déjà vu, but different. 

We know more about the virus this time and we know what it's like being confined, so there is less panic (bar a few toilet paper hoarders, who for some reason did not learn their lesson last time – there is enough loo roll for everyone!).

There is no lack of face masks so you feel less vulnerable going to shops. France has massively ramped up its testing capacity and hospitals have improved their medical treatment of the virus.

There is less rigidity too. The government wants to avoid another economic crash and is trying to keep as much activity going as possible. Schools will stay open so parents will not have to juggle remote working and homeschooling.

There is less uncertainty. Last time, the government had to clarify lockdown rules on outings nearly daily, setting new limits every time another loophole needed filling. This time, it’s clearer from the outset what’s allowed and what’s not. 

At the same time, it’s autumn, not spring.

Instead of summer being on the horizon, we are headed for a long winter. There is less hope for a quick fix. Bar and restaurant owners, small business owners, bookshops, florists and a long list of others who have to close down business once again, are despairing. 

The government has promised that no one will be left behind and President Emmanuel Macron, when he announced the lockdown, pleaded with the nation to just hold on a bit longer and show solidarity during this trying period.

Generally, the mood seems to be like the weather, gloomy and grey. Not only has life been reduced to the dreaded metro-bolout-dodo (metro-work-sleep), just without the metro for most of us, but everyone now knows that there is no easy way out.

The infamous Gaulois réfractaires (reactionary gauls)  turned out to be less stubborn than feared and obeyed the rules of the first lockdown without much protest. 

It will be interesting to see whether that will be the case this time around too, especially if things don't look better closer to Christmas.

Image: Our World in Data

'The situation in Sweden has become more serious, but will the new rules change behaviour?' Catherine Edwards, Stockholm

Five of Sweden’s 21 regions are now under stricter local coronavirus measures. It’s not a lockdown — Sweden’s ‘binding recommendations’ are not legally enforced in the same way as elsewhere in Europe — but it’s far closer to a lockdown than Sweden has come yet. 

People in the affected regions, including the three major cities of Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg, are urged to avoid indoor environments like shops, gyms and museums, and to limit social contact with people from other households, though face masks are still absent from the guidelines. The government last week raised the attendee limit at some seated events from 50 to 300, but these local restrictions have put a stop to that in parts of the country.

The tone from authorities at the biweekly press conferences has got sharper too, making it clear that the situation is serious, especially as the Health Minister has warned that tougher recommendations could still come if cases continue to rise sharply and the healthcare sector comes under pressure.

But even despite these changes, there is still a marked difference in the way Sweden communicates its recommendations. Other countries may have caused confusion with complex tier or alert systems, or regularly changing rules and exceptions, but here it’s almost the opposite situation. While a majority of people still support the strategy according to polls, there are different ways of interpreting exactly what that strategy is.

Some gyms and museums have closed, and private parties or gatherings cancelled in response to the change, and employers were issued a sharp reminder to ensure employees work from home if they can. But with no sanctions or strict limits, it’s unlikely this new level of recommendations will persuade those who have so far not made big changes that they need to alter their behaviour by making difficult sacrifices.  

The local recommendations say people should “avoid physical contact with people other than those you live with” in Stockholm, and “avoid socialising with people other than those you live with or meet every week” in southern Skåne. But when The Local asked the Public Health Agency for clarity on whether any socialising was permitted, we were told that the key was to “minimise our social contacts and especially new social contacts”. 

People could be forgiven for being unsure whether small dinners with close friends are still permissible, or even whether they could go about daily life more or less as normal as long as they didn’t meet many new people. In a country where 40 percent of households consist of people living alone, and winters are long and dark, these are no small distinctions.

Image: ECDC

'Most in Spain are confined, but it's not like the dark, desperate days of spring,” Fiona Govan, Madrid

Nearly all of Spain is confined. Not in the same way that we were back in the dark, desperate days of March and April, when Spain imposed the strictest lockdown in Europe and one wasn’t even allowed out of the house to exercise.

This time the vast majority of people in Spain are stuck within their region’s borders or in some places – 32 zones in Madrid for example, and anywhere in the Basque Country – those unlucky residents are unable to cross the invisible boundaries of healthcare zones or municipal limits.

The perimeter confinements are designed to stop the usual gallivanting across the country that happens over All Saints’ weekend, when Spaniards either head back to their familial pueblo to pay their respects to the dearly departed or they use the three-day weekend to take a city minibreak, head to the coast or drive out to the countryside for an autumnal hike followed by a hearty lunch.

So while it might limit the infected from taking their germs elsewhere, in Madrid at least, where bars and restaurants are still open (unlike Catalonia) and the nightly curfew doesn’t kick in until midnight (two hours later than in Catalonia), it is only serving to keep us trapped within our own petri dish.

The new ‘state of alarm’ measures come as the virus continues to spread throughout the country, with new cases having grown 71 percent in 15 days, yet there is talk on the streets about making the most of the freedoms we still have before we return to a full lockdown, a move many think is inevitable by Christmas.

While it’s true that the bustling streets of downtown suddenly turn eerily quiet on the stroke of midnight, the restaurants in the capital are anticipating a bumper weekend as Madrileños prove they are, after all capable of eating before 9pm and shift their dinner reservations to start a few hours earlier.

Outside hospitals all week we’ve seen doctors staging strikes demanding stricter measures and more effort to support the healthcare system as another covid-19 disaster looms while across Spain, from Seville to Bilbao, angry protests are flaring up against the restrictive measures with youths setting fire to bins to shouts of “liberdad”.

In Madrid, fliers taped to railings and lampposts have suddenly popped up across the capital calling for the people to rise up, break the chains, and gather in Sol just before curfew on Saturday night (bring a coat, food and drink, the poster urges).

'There is tired acceptance in Denmark of what needs to be done,' Micheal Barrett, Copenhagen

It’s been quite the week for coronavirus restrictions in Denmark.

After apparently conceding that spiralling infection numbers were not going to brought under control with existing measures, the government announced last Friday evening that restrictions were going to be tightened.

That means face masks are now required at all indoor public places; no more than 10 people are allowed to gather; and alcohol is banned from sale after 10pm, including by supermarkets and convenience stores. A renewed financial package has been announced to assist impacted businesses.

With daily cases reaching over 1,000 on two occasions this week, the numbers are not slowing.

Nevertheless, there has been no shortage of debate over the new rules in Danish media (including social media), with commentators arguing that they go too far, not far enough, and various things in between.

When she announced the restrictions a week ago, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen attempted to coin a new term: coronatrist, essentially sadness or the blues resulting from the now drawn-out battle with coronavirus and its resultant social restrictions.

As people across the country masked up for the first time to enter supermarkets on Thursday, the atmosphere – at least, my anecdotal observation of it – was less one of sadness than of grudging and tired acceptance of what needs to be done.

'The mood in Italy's cities is increasingly tense,' Clare Speak, Bari

As the contagion curve continues to rise in Italy, the government insists it is doing everything possible to avoid a second lockdown.

Italy’s two-month spring lockdown was one of the longest and strictest in Europe – though health experts credited it with getting the outbreak under control, and leaving Italy behind the curve as infections rose again in neighbouring countries.

Those rules had strong public support, despite the economic consequences. Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who most people were indifferent about before, won the nation over with his calm but firm approach.

But things are very different this time.

As the government fired out three new emergency decrees in under two weeks, each slightly stricter than the last, some health experts accused Conte of not having a strategy. It certainly looks and feels chaotic.

Ministers hoped a more gradual approach to restrictions this time would be less economically damaging. But so far, it has caused a lot of anger and resentment. 

The mood in Italy’s cities has been increasingly tense. This week, that tension began to erupt into widespread protests against the new rules, as business owners said certain sectors had been unfairly blamed for the rise in infections.

Restaurants and bars have to close nationwide at 6pm, while gyms and cinemas are shut completely. Restaurant workers told me the 6pm closure was “pointless” and a gym owner said they were “being targeted without evidence”.

Health experts said the current measures are a case of too little too late. More than 100 scientists last week urged the government to bring in “drastic measures” immediately as hospitals fill up. So far, it hasn't.

Conte's government still insists a second lockdown isn’t necessary, and that the country can’t afford it. So what’s the plan? Right now no one seems to know. Tired, broke, and increasingly divided, Italy is stumbling into the second wave.

'There is growing unease in Austria,' Stefan Haderer, Vienna

The general mood in Austria is unease: unease about the rising number of cases even in small communities and among friends, unease about detrimental economic impacts, unemployment and social shortcomings.

There’s also unease about measures which some people consider to be much more severe than the virus itself.

Due to an exponential rise of Corona virus cases (4,453 infections as of October 29th) and growing hospitalisations in Austria, the government met with health experts this week to discuss new severe measures which are to be announced this Saturday. Austria’s Health Minister Rudolf Anschober considers this “second wave” of the virus to hit the country much harder than the “first wave” in spring.

Several journalists and large parts of the population expect an at least partial nationwide lockdown. Right after Germany’s decision Chancellor Sebastian Kurz contacted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to advise on further steps.

This lockdown could include shutting down all restaurants and bars, curfews (as in other neighbour countries) and an end to cultural life and public events for at least one month. Home schooling should only remain an option though.

The majority of the population has been in favour of most measures to fight the epidemic so far. According to recent polls, however, 85% of the Austrians strongly oppose a second lockdown as they expect it to destroy the economy for the next few years. The residents in the Western provinces, but even in Vienna, see their jobs in winter tourism and 
hospitality at stake.

Anti-Corona protests have also increased, especially in Vienna, where about 1,500 people demonstrated for “freedom and civil rights”. Anger and frustration also grows in the countryside as some politicians are calling for restrictions or even bans on private parties in gardens and on private premises.

The coalition government, which acted fairly unanimously in spring and summer, now seems to be at odds when it comes to taking immediate measures.

The Austrians perceive the two ruling parties to be divided: Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP keeps pushing for harsh measures as COVID-19 cases soar, while his junior partner, the Green Party (including the Health Minister) appears to be more hesitant and cautious about taking immediate action.

'There's not the same sense of unity across Germany,' Rachel Stern, Berlin

This week my removal van slowly drove out of the centre of Berlin because several streets sealed off due to a protest against Germany’s second lockdown this year. 

Berlin’s Mitte district, normally bustling with business, will see its restaurants and cultural institutions largely close for a month as of November 2nd – as is the case for the rest of Germany as new coronavirus cases edge close to 20,000 a day.

Yet this time around, there’s not the same sense of unity across Germany – lauded across the world for its initial quick and organised action to keep cases under control – as there was in March and April. 

Businesses have invested heavily in keeping their spaces safe, whether plexicase divides or rearranged rooms to allow for social distancing, and bemoan what they see as an unnecessary loss of income, even with government aid. 

Yet Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended the new lockdown, which this time will see schools and kitas remain open, saying that priorities have been set to stop coronavirus cases, now growing exponentially, from growing out of control in the winter months and over-saturating the health care system. 

“If we wait until the intensive care beds are full, then it will be too late,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn told regional broadcaster SWR this week.

Those in favour of the lockdown say it’s urgent to do it now so that people can spend time with their families again at Christmas. 

As a foreign resident of Germany, I’ve given up on flying home for the holidays this year – despite my new residence sitting close to Germany’s new Berlin BER airport. It’s ironically opening its doors just a couple days shy of Germany’s lockdown, following years of delays.

But I’m still hanging on to hope that Germany will again get through this tough time through hard but limited measures, and that I’ll be seeing festive lights – indoors and outdoors – come December. 

'Norway's ever fluctuating nation and regional rules has left people weary,' Agnes Erickson, Oslo

A press conference was held in Norway on Monday the 19th of October announcing new restrictions that should be carried out from now to until the beginning of December. “You can make small adjustments now… or you take strong measures later,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg stated at the conference.

The ever-fluctuating national and regional government rules/guidelines have shown just how obedient locals are to the Norwegian government. People are weary, but are doing what needs to be done until a vaccine comes. 

It came as no surprise the country's capital city, Oslo was handed stricter regulations, as it is registering the most cases of infection of the entire country. A total of 875 confirmed cases in Oslo within the last two weeks, reports NRK.

The government showed some leniency allowing exemptions in social gathering guidelines. Children of elementary school ages and younger are still allowed to host Halloween and birthday parties with more than five friends. 

Perhaps the most discussed new guideline made public on Monday is the five person max in social contexts (Although,  people who live together are only counted as one invite for gatherings). There seems to be some uncertainty and a lack of clarity in the government's request. Perhaps because this was just made as a guideline and not a rule, or because there were exemptions included, or because people are unsure if it is for gatherings in private residences or generally in ALL social contexts. 

While most may be feeling tired of not being able to make plans for the long-term, the stricter regulations given to the public at the press conference on Monday were expected. News of the increasing numbers of infected cases around the rest of Europe are making headlines. As of most recent, VG reports 19,069 cases of infection, 48 hospital admissions, and a total of 280 deaths in Norway. 


'The Swiss have been given a last chance… then it's lockdown', Helena Bachmann, Geneva

“Three weeks ago, our situation was one of the best in Europe. Three weeks later, it’s one of the worst. “

This is how Health Minister Alain Berset described the massive surge in coronavirus infections that has plagued Switzerland since the beginning of October. And he wasn’t exaggerating.

The alarming increase in daily infections — topping those recorded at the height of the pandemic in the spring — are resulting in more deaths and more hospitalisations.

Medical facilities, which managed their resources pretty well during the first wave, are now reaching their saturation points, predicting that their capacity to care for Covid patients will be greatly exceeded in the coming days.

Faced with the looming health crisis, many cantons expanded their existing rules and implemented new ones, including a more widespread use of masks, and limit on the size of crowds allowed to gather in public and private.

READ MORE: Switzerland's new coronavirus measures explained 

But as numbers continued to skyrocket, the federal government announced that it would implement tougher measures this week.

Many here expected draconian restrictions, such as lockdowns and curfews similar to those in effect in the neighbouring countries.

On Wednesday, however, authorities released a rather underwhelming set of measures to supplement those already in place. Among them are masks in crowded outdoor places, the closure of clubs and discos, an 11 pm curfew for bars and restaurants, and smaller groups allowed to be together — 50 in public and 10 in private. 

Besides those who are disappointed at having to cancel weddings or other private events, some people expressed their outrage at the meek measures the authorities undertook to curb a pandemic of gigantic proportions.

Most, however, praised the government’s strategy, calling it ‘proportionate’ and ‘pragmatic’. 

“This is the way Swiss people are — controlled and measured in everything we do”, a (masked) woman walking her dog on a path alongside Lake Geneva explained.

Her companion added that, overall, Switzerland’s population trusts their leaders to make smart decisions in all kinds of matters, big and small.

“It's now up to us to follow these rules and be socially responsible towards each other”, he pointed out, echoing what seems to be a prevalent opinion here.

Whether or not this ‘pragmatic’ approach will be effective in controlling the spread of Covid will become obvious in a few weeks.

In the meantime, everyone is aware of what Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga said while announcing the new measures: that if they turn out to be ineffective, more drastic restrictions — namely, the lockdown — will be necessary.

“This is our last chance”, she warned.





Member comments

  1. I love Switzerland and really enjoy living here. Could someone explain why with the highest level of infection rates in Mainland Europe and hospitals reaching capacity little to nothing is being done to confront this

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Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.