PARIS In the early days of the pandemic, President Emmanuel Macron urged the French to wage war on the coronavirus. today, his message is to learn how to live with the virus.
From complete conflict to the cessation of the Cold War, France and the rest of Europe have decided to coexist as infections continue to rise, summer recedes in a risky autumn and the possibility of a second wave follows the continent.
Giving up hope of eradicating the virus or developing a vaccine within weeks, Europeans have largely returned to work and school, living life as normally as possible amid a sustained pandemic that already exists. killed nearly 215,000 in Europe.
The approach contrasts sharply with the United States, where restrictions on protecting against the virus have been politically divisive and where many regions have pushed forward with the reopening of schools, shops and restaurants without basic protocols. The result has been almost as many deaths as in Europe, albeit among a much smaller population.
Europeans, for the most part, are using the lessons learned with difficulty from the initial stages of pandemics: the need to wear masks and practice social distancing, the importance of testing and tracking, the critical advantages of brazen and local response. All those measures, tightened or eased as needed, are intended to prevent the kind of national blockade that paralyzed the continent and crippled economies earlier this year.
It is impossible to stop the virus at night, said Emmanuel Andr, a leading virologist in Belgium and former government spokesman for the Covid-19 Task Force. It’s all about maintaining balance. And we only have a few tools available to do that.
He added, People are tired. They no longer want to go to war.
Military language has given way to more prudent security.
We are in a phase that lives with the virus, said Roberto Speranza, Italy’s health minister, the first country in Europe to impose a national blockade. In an interview with La Stampa newspaper, Mr Speranza said that although there is no zero infection rate, Italy was now much better equipped to handle an increase in infections.
There will be no more blockage, Mr Speranza said.
Still, the risks remain.
New infections have increased in recent weeks, particularly in France and Spain. France recorded more than 10,000 cases in a single day last week. The jump is not surprising as the total number of tests performed now around 1 million a week has steadily increased and is now more than 10 times what it was in the spring.
The death rate of about 30 people a day is a small fraction of what it was at its peak when hundreds and sometimes more than 1,000 died every day in France. That’s because infected people now tend to be younger, and health officials have learned how to better treat Covid-19, said William Dab, an epidemiologist and former French national health director.
The virus is still circulating freely, was poorly controlling the chain of infections and inevitably people at high risk of aging, obesity, diabetics will end up affected, Dabb said.
In Germany, too, young people are over-represented among the growing incidence of infections.
As German health authorities are testing over a million people a week, a debate has begun over the importance of infection levels in providing a picture of the pandemic.
In early September, only 5 percent of confirmed cases had to go to hospital for treatment, according to data from the country’s health authority. During the pandemic peak in April, about 22 percent of those infected ended up in hospital care.
Hendrik Streeck, head of virology at a research hospital in the German city of Bonn warned that the pandemic should not be judged simply by infection numbers, but instead by deaths and hospitalizations.
Weve reached a stage where the number of infections alone is no longer so significant, Mr Streeck said.
Much of Europe was unprepared for the arrival of the coronavirus, lacking masks, test equipment and other basic equipment. Even nations that performed better than others, such as Germany, recorded much higher death rates than Asian countries that were much closer to the source of the explosion in Wuhan, China, but that reacted faster.
National blockades helped to bring the pandemic under control across Europe. But infection levels began to rise again over the summer as places opened up and people, especially young people, resumed socializing, often without adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Even as infections have increased, Europeans have returned to work and school this month, creating more opportunities for the virus to spread.
We control chains of infections better compared to March or April when we were completely powerless, said Mr Dabb, the former French national director of health. Now the challenge for the government is to find a balance between reviving the economy and protecting people’s health.
And it is not an easy balance, added Mr. Dab. They want to reassure people that they will return to work, but at the same time, we need to make them worry so that they continue to abide by preventative measures.
Among those measures, masks are now widely available throughout Europe, and governments, for the most part, agree on the need to wear them. Earlier this year, faced with shortages, the French government discouraged people from wearing masks, saying they did not protect users and could even be harmful.
Wearing a face mask has become part of the lives of Europeans, most of whom last March still viewed with suspicion and misunderstanding masked tourists from Asia, where the practice has been prevalent for the past two decades.
Instead of enforcing national blockades with little attention to regional change, authorities even in a highly centralized nation like France have begun to respond more quickly to local hotspots with specific measures.
On Monday, for example, Bordeaux officials announced that, in the face of an increase in infections, they would limit private gatherings to 10 people, limit visits to retirement homes and ban stays in bars.
In Germany, as the new school year has begun with compulsory physical classes across the country, authorities have warned that traditional events, such as carnivals or Christmas markets, may have to be restricted or even canceled. The Bundesliga football games will continue to be played without fans until at least the end of October.
In Britain, where wearing a mask is not particularly prevalent or strictly enforced, authorities have tightened rules for family gatherings in Birmingham, where infections have increased. In Belgium, people are limited to limiting their social activity to a bubble of six people.
In Italy, the government has closed villages, hospitals or even migrant shelters to house new groups. Antonio Miglietta, an epidemiologist who conducted the tracking of contacts in a quarantine building in Rome in June, said months of fighting the virus had helped officials quell the outbreaks before they got out of control, as they did in northern Italy this year.
We got better at it, he said.
Governments still need to get better at other things.
At the height of the epidemic, France, like many other European nations, was so desperate that the means of proof were so many sick people were unable to be tested.
Today, although France conducts one million tests a week, widespread testing has created delays in getting appointments and results by up to a week in Paris. People can now be tested regardless of their symptoms or their history of contacts, and officials have not set priority tests that would speed up results for people at higher risk for themselves and others.
We can have a more targeted testing policy that would probably be more useful in the fight against the virus than what it was doing now, said Lionel Barrand, president of the Union of Young Medical Biologists, adding that the French government should limit tests to people with a prescription and engage in targeted screening campaigns to combat the emergence of groups.
Experts said French health officials also need to greatly improve efforts to track contacts that proved essential in curbing the spread of the virus in Asian countries.
Following the completion of the two-month blockade in May, the Frances social security system put in place a manual contact tracking system to track infected people and their contacts. But the system, which relies heavily on the skills and experience of human contact trackers, has produced different results.
At the beginning of the campaign, each infected person gave the contact tracker an average of 2.4 more names, most likely family members. The campaign improved steadily as the number of names increased to more than five in July, according to a latest report from French health authorities.
But since then, the average figure has gradually dropped to less than three contacts per person, while the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has increased tenfold in the meantime, rising from a seven-day average of about 800 new cases in days in mid-July averages about 8,000 per day currently, according to figures compiled by The New York Times.
At the height of the epidemic, most people in France were extremely critical of the governments treating the epidemic. But polls show that a majority now believes the government will handle a possible second wave better than the first.
Jrme Carrire, a police officer who was visiting Paris from his home in Metz, northern France, said it was a good sign that most people were now wearing masks.
At first, like all French, we were shocked and upset, said Mr Carrire, 55, adding that two old family friends had died from Covid-19. And then, we adjusted and went back to our normal lives.
The report was contributed by Constant Mheut and Antonella Francini from Paris, Matt Apuzzo from Brussels, Gaia Pianigiani and Emma Bubola from Rome and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.
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