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26 August 2020updated 06 Sep 2021 12:52pm

As infections rise across Europe, the long-term reality of coronavirus is becoming clear

As the continent enters a second stage of the virus, it may look back fondly on the past summer as relatively benign. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

On 22 August three concerts took place in Leipzig, south of Berlin. Some 1,500 healthy volunteers watched the pop crooner Tim Bendzko in three different iterations. All were tested for Covid-19 some 48 hours in advance, given tracking devices and monitored in their movements around the building through fluorescent disinfectants. The first concert simulated normality before the pandemic, the second imposed moderate social distancing precautions, and the third took place in front of half as many people, all standing 1.5m apart. The researchers from the University of Halle will publish their findings on the feasibility of big, crowded indoor events in the autumn. Their report is expected to attract significant international interest.

In the meantime, ordinary Germans are conducting their own, organic experiment. The country lifted its lockdown in stages, beginning in May. Here in Berlin a pastoral spring – all songbirds, silent streets, nature healing – gradually gave way to creeping normality and with it the resurgent rush of the metropolis. I crossed a packed Alexanderplatz the other day and was reminded of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 stream-of-consciousness portrait of the square’s bustle: “The crowds, the crowds. My skull needs grease, it must have dried out. All that stuff. Shoe shops, hat shops, electric lights, bars. People will need shoes to run around in…” Schools have completely reopened. Amid the intense heat of the recent weeks a multilingual euro-babble has thronged once more on the banks of the city’s rivers, lakes and canals.

Both chronologically and qualitatively, Europe has ended up somewhere between the Far East (with its intense bio-surveillance) and the US (with its chaotic patchwork of responses and non-responses) in its handling of the virus. That middle way has seemed like a decent model: curbing the virus while preserving liberties to socialise without excessively severe oversight.

But now that middle way, and the experiment playing out in Europe in recent weeks as people have tested its limits, may be hitting the buffers. On the same day the Leipzig experiment took place, Germany recorded its highest number of new infections (2,034) since April. On 24 August France reported its highest one-day increase in cases since May. In Italy daily new infections are now above 1,000 for the first time in three months. Infections in Spain have risen starkly since it lifted its three-month lockdown in late June. New travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and social distancing rules are being imposed across Europe ahead of the onset of the autumn and its cooler, damper weather, which some fear will boost the spread of Covid-19.

The rising numbers come as the continent is also heading into an economic crunch. Europe’s work-subsidy schemes, paying employers to keep staff on through the lockdowns, have contrasted favourably with the US’s patchy support – a contrast borne out in a much sharper unemployment and infection spike in the US. But some big lay-offs are coming anyway. In the car industry, for example, job losses have been announced at Renault and Volvo of 15,000 and 4,100 respectively. And across the continent, many furlough and subsidised part-time schemes will wind down this autumn. Countries with already-weak public finances can only afford to sustain the subsidies for so long.

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Europe is entering a second stage of the virus. The lockdowns will be less draconian than in the first stage, with some freedoms to move and gather indoors upheld at the cost of intense testing and contact tracing. Vulnerable groups will be subjected to sporadic new lockdowns and shielding measures. European authorities will be better prepared than they were for the spring surge; for example, pinpointing outbreaks and imposing intense local restrictions where they occur. Meanwhile, job losses will accelerate, living standards in economically weak countries will fall, and governments will do all they can to avoid imposing new blanket lockdowns as they attempt to keep their economies running. Europe may come to look back fondly on the past summer as a relatively benign time.

Ever more attention will be devoted to the quest for a vaccine. On 11 August Russia announced that it had a jab against Covid-19 – albeit amid scepticism from international health experts. On 24 August the EU completed exploratory talks with Moderna, an American biotechnology firm, to provide 80 million doses of a future vaccine. As the autumn closes in, and Europeans bridle at the restrictions, the need for mass immunity will feel more and more urgent. Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI), a leading virology centre, suggests that a vaccine could even come before the end of this year.

That was the part of the statement that made the headlines. But the RKI experts also warned against high expectations: “Imponderables like mutations and only short immunity periods can put the value of a vaccine into perspective.” Sure enough, on 24 August Hong Kong reported the first case of a Covid-19 reinfection, in which genome sequencing is said to show two different strains of the virus. A healthy man in his 30s, who had been diagnosed with the virus in March and recovered, had produced another positive test. Though researchers say it is not a cause for alarm, the revelation (if correct) suggests that some of those who attain immunity from the virus will only have it temporarily – raising questions about the effectiveness of any vaccine.

Strange experiments like the Leipzig concerts may seem like short-lived phenomena, provisional curiosities while we Europeans wait for an escape. But they might yet prove glimpses of our longer-term future. 

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