In addition to the Russia-Ukraine war and the global economic crisis, COVID-19 is now back in the news and on the European policy agenda. This is due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Europe, despite the hot weather. The rising number of cases has spawned fears that the pandemic could exacerbate the economic recession through halting commercial activities. It could also increase pressure on health organizations in various European countries and force governments to make emergency policy decisions that could be at odds with their ongoing efforts to mitigate the fallout of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
There have recently been increasingly concerning signs of rising COVID-19 cases in Europe. After many European countries announced that they would lift social distancing and lockdown measures that had been imposed earlier to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the virus has now reared its head again. These indications are as follows:
1. Daily case counts spiking: According to a report issued by the UK Office for National Statistics on 18 June 2022, total COVID-19 case counts have risen to almost 1.4 million cases. However, more concerning is that the office found that 1 in 40 people in England and 1 in 20 people in Scotland had COVID-19 in a random sample gathered in June. It is expected that COVID-19 rates will reach similar levels in Northern Ireland and Wales.
The situation is worse in other European countries. Italy, which was previously a COVID-19 hotspot, has recorded rising case counts again in June. The Italian National Institute of Health announced that the number of cases had risen to 62,700 in the first half of June and warned that cases could double in the coming weeks. The number of cases in Greece also rose to 10,528 in the third week of June.
2. New countries reach record numbers: The statistical reports published by "Our World in Data" indicate that in the third week of June, case counts had risen in most European countries, including Portugal, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, and Denmark. The report stated that Portugal in particular had seen higher numbers of cases compared to other European countries in June, and now ranks second worldwide in new COVID-19 cases after South Africa. France has also experienced an unprecedented leap in the number of weekly cases with a jump from 224 to 920 cases in a single week. "Our World in Data" also noted that actual case counts are much higher than the official numbers, due to the low rates of COVID-19 testing in the country.
3. Deaths also likely to rise: Given the emergence of new Omicron subvariants, it is expected that the number of deaths from COVID-19 will also increase, especially among the most vulnerable groups, such as the elderly. According to some reports, the new subvariants are more contagious than the original version of Omicron by about 10 to 15 percent. This will give the virus new momentum and could be very challenging for European hospitals.
Explaining the Surge
The uptick in COVID-19 cases in Europe is being driven by several key factors including:
1. Emergence of new Omicron subvariants: Many experts attribute the marked rise in COVID-19 cases in Europe to the emergence of new Omicron subvariants, especially BA.4 and BA.5. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the total number of new cases is estimated to be around 644,736 (for the period from 7 to 21 June 2022).
It is likely that the new BA.5 subvariant is responsible for the huge leap in cases in Europe. Some studies have shown that these new Omicron subvariants are more able to evade immunity than earlier subvariants, which is very concerning. This is because the herd immunity that had been reached through widespread COVID-19 infections and vaccine campaigns might soon not be able to stem the spread of new subvariants.
2. Delays in boosters for children and the elderly: There is still extensive debate in the European medical community about whether children can receive the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as disagreement over the importance of offering a fourth dose as a booster for the elderly. Many medical studies have indicated that the immune response from vaccination is less effective against these new variants. The rates of protection that the vaccine afforded against Delta were around 95 percent. This fell to 85 percent against Omicron, and is expected to fall further to 70 percent against new subvariants of the virus.
3. COVID-19 restrictions lifted during peak tourist season: Many reports have also shown that the increased number of COVID-19 cases in Europe is partially due to cutting back or fully lifting restrictions and preventive measures at the same time as the summer tourist season. European countries are now allowing large gatherings of people. For example, there were huge street parties of millions of people held in the UK for an entire week in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. Meanwhile, many European and non-European tourists have booked travel to various tourist cities in Europe as summer vacations begin.
4. Lack of political will to impose new restrictions: Although doctors have expressed increasing concern, European governments are still not able to impose new restrictions and measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. These measures include requiring masks in indoor spaces such as restaurants and public transportation and maintaining a social distance.
Portugal, which has experienced a spike in Omicron cases, has said that it is not planning to impose new COVID-19 restrictions. It indicated that it will also move forward with plans to allow short-term residency to freelancers from other countries. Marco Buschmann, the German minister of justice, said that his country would not impose any new restrictions until it had assessed the impact of previous restrictions on the spread of COVID-19 as well as the ramifications of this policy for the Germany economy.
5. European focus on the war in Ukraine: The war in Ukraine poses serious new threats to the security of European nations and has become a key area of focus for European countries. As a result, Europe is less engaged with developing measures to counter the spread of COVID-19. This, in addition to the opening of borders to large numbers of Ukrainian refugees in many European countries, has contributed to some extent to the spike in COVID-19 cases. This could also create additional pressure on critical facilities in the fight against COVID-19. The crowded accommodation facilities for refugees also increase the potential for the spread of infectious diseases in these facilities, including COVID-19.
In conclusion, rising COVID-19 cases in Europe have resulted in many people demanding the return of pandemic restrictions to prevent the situation from getting worse. The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has emphasized caution and is following the situation closely to ensure it does not deteriorate further as new variants spread across Europe.
The center has issued guidanceon fighting the new wave, which includes steps that can be taken to develop the capacities of health organizations. It emphasizes the need to provide care for suspected cases as well as to continue disease surveillance regarding the number of cases and hotspots using COVID-19 testing, and to distinguish between older and newer variants in these tests.
The center also affirmed the importance of identifying commonalities between the newer and older variants, which could contribute to understanding the differences between the new subvariants and earlier versions of COVID-19, and how to best deal with them. Furthermore, the center indicated that it expects that further booster doses will be needed to protect against future waves before the fall and winter, especially for the groups that are most vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 infections, such as persons over 60 years of age and immunocompromised people.