Lessons from flare up of Covid-19 across Europe

Omicron may pose additional threat to EU, India

Politics

November 29, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Lessons from flare up of Covid-19 across Europe

Last week, WHO warned that Europe was once again the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Martin Sanchez/Unsplash)

Even before the latest strain, Omicron, was detected by doctors in South Africa, many European nations had been in the grip of yet another wave of Covid-19 as virus raged across the continent. Few that have escaped the latest wave may have lessons for others.

Recently, in its most alarming statement in months, the World Health Organisation warned that Europe was once again the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic and that it was the only region in the world where the number of cases was rising still.

The warning came as a range of nations, from Germany and Austria in the west to Russia in the east reported rising number of fresh daily cases for nearly 10 consecutive weeks. The situation was so serious, said the global health body, that if the outbreak continued in the same way, it could lead to an additional 700,000 deaths across the continent in just four months, by February 2022.

The WHO said the primary reasons behind the fourth wave were two fold – one was the relatively low take up of the Covid-19 vaccines in many of the afflicted countries, which often came combined with rather early and abrupt reopening and easing of restrictions that most of these countries saw earlier this year.

Indeed, most of Europe is reeling under the fresh outbreak, which could get worse as a humid and cold winter approaches, sending jittery reminders of the winter of 2020 when thousands of fresh cases emerged every day in every single country across Europe, leading to high fatalities, which began to ease only around spring 2021.

The countries which have been hit in the current wave are clearly those that either got relaxed too early on or those that did not pursue vaccinations with the same degree of seriousness as the nations in south-western Europe, notably Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. Almost every one of these four countries has completed over 75 pc of vaccination, with both doses duly delivered and have continued with strict check on movement of people with the controversial ‘Green Pass’ or ‘Pass Sanitaire’ despite strikes and demonstrations against both the moves.

Moreover, the four countries stand out in Europe for pushing ahead with vaccination. In France, the uptake was low until July when President Emmanuel Macron imposed the Pass Sanitaire for almost all outings and made it mandatory for health workers to be vaccinated and a number of large employers followed suit, mandating their employees to get vaccinated or be fired or sent on leave without pay.

Similar moves were made almost simultaneously in other countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal and barely four months later, the moves seemed to have paid off. The headaches of getting tested for Covid-19 every 3 days to have a valid Pass Sanitaire pushed most of the people in these nations go for the vaccinations. The difference was visible within weeks as the previously lackadaisical attitude towards the vaccine changed dramatically.

For instance, at the end of May, 2021, 38.8 pc of French had received one dose of the vaccine, Spain stood just ahead at 38.9 pc while Germany was cruising at 43.1 pc. On July 1, the numbers had to 51.1 pc in France, while Spain had raced ahead to 55.5 pc, just short of Germany at 55.9 pc. By August 1, France, with 63.4 pc had left Germany behind at 61.6 pc and Spain was way ahead at 68.8 pc. On November 4, while Germany was still struggling at 69 pc, France had moved on to 76 and Spain at 81.5 pc.

Moreover, even as the south-west European nations continued to vaccinate rapidly, they retained the strict curbs on all movements, using the Green Pass efficiently and effectively to prevent the unvaccinated from moving about unchecked.

Unfortunately, a lot of other European countries were not able to do either. Not only did the countries like Germany fail to address the vaccine hesistancy through awareness programmes or negative incentives like the Green Pass, but they also eased most of the restrictions on movement and gatherings, thus creating a fertile ground for the return of the coronavirus with a vengeance.

The results are now visible for all to see. On April 17, 2021, France had registered 45,636 fresh cases of Covid-19, Spain while Germany was way behind at 20,693 cases. On August 16, France recorded 25,467 cases, while Germany had subsided to 4536. By November 7, Germany had seen its cases flare up to 26357, while France was way below at 7285 fresh cases.

By November 8, Germany’s fresh daily cases had raced to over 35,000, the highest ever since the pandemic reached the country in late 2019, indicating the severity of the problem. Similarly, in other countries with low vaccination rates, such as Russia, the cases had also reached new highs, with Russia reaching close to 40,000 daily cases, its highest ever.

The sharp divergence in cases and deaths being seen in countries within Europe is even more surprising considering that the European Union had pre-ordered over 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines, the biggest order by any country or collective of countries like the European Union. Though there were major problems with the vaccine deliveries and that had continued right until spring of 2021, but since then the supplies have eased up and there are enough jabs available for each country.

Thus, the EU had in its possession many more jabs than even the much larger countries like China or India. There are roughly five doses for each EU adult that have been available with EU governments, but they have failed to administer them. Similarly, Russia, which has produced its own Sputnik vaccine and which it has been exporting to numerous countries, including to India, has failed to vaccinate enough of its own people.

As pandemic has been fading in many parts of the world, it is important that governments and people around the world look at the mess that Europe finds itself in and learn lessons rapidly from the failure of the administrations as well as the people in taking two basic steps that could have saved them the misery that a fourth wave is now all set to unleash upon the Old Continent once again.

Omicron may delay pandemic recovery

The discovery of yet another, highly contagious strain of the virus, named Omicron by the WHO, can only complicate the situation even more for the European Union, and indeed the rest of the world. The WHO has called it a variant of concern and what may be most worrying for the EU is that almost all the cases of Omicron detected across the 10 countries in the world so far involve those who had been fully vaccinated.

For once, it is good to see that India has not taken the usual laid back approach and responded rapidly to the developments even as they were unfolding. Thus keeping an eye out for potential carriers of the strain from other parts of the world and strengthening the testing systems at the points of entry into India are important steps that can help tackle the strain and its spread in India.

Also, it is premature to call Omicron a catastrophe and shut the borders, as some countries have resorted to. South Africa has rightly called out the countries that have closed the flight connections to South Africa and other countries in its neighbourhood in a hurry, saying that it was being punished for being prompt in detecting and reporting the new strain. Indeed, if this is the price that a country may have to pay in sharing information promptly about the virus propagation, then it would act as a huge deterrent and may force the virus and its numerous strains underground, making a recovery from the pandemic a nightmarishly-long journey.

The European crisis also raises another vital issue for the world to consider. The issue relates to the cornering of the developed world, including the EU and the United States Even as most developing nations, especially in Africa, as well as Asia and in small island states in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are still struggling to get adequate vaccines to protect their populations who are not as vaccine-hesitant as many Europeans have been.

This puts a big question mark on whether rich countries were right to procure for themselves extremely large quantities of precious vaccines for them, more than twice that they would ever need, while depriving the rest of the world of even a single dose.

Be it for Covid-19 or any other future medical crisis, be it infectious or not, should some countries, that have the money or power, be allowed to corner a significant amount of medicines while depriving the rest of the world of the crucial, life-saving drugs, especially when the countries that have cornered the doses struggle to use them for their own populations. These are issues that the WHO would do well to deliberate upon now, as Covid-19 seemingly recedes and before another health crisis envelopes the world in the future.

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