As the U.S. closed in on 200,000 coronavirus deaths Monday, the crisis deteriorated across Europe, with Britain working to draw up new restrictions, Spain clamping down again in Madrid and the Czech Republic replacing its health minister with an epidemiologist because of a surge of infections.
The growing push to reimpose tough new measures in Europe to beat back a scourge that was seemingly under control in the spring contributed to a sharp drop on Wall Street in the morning. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 900 points, or 3.4%, and the S&P 500 was down 2.6%.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson later this week is expected to announce a round of restrictions designed to act as a “circuit breaker” to slow the spread of the disease. British Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that cases are doubling every seven days, and the experience in other countries shows that will soon lead to a rise in deaths.
“We have, in a very bad sense, literally turned a corner,” after weeks of rising infections, Whitty said, reports AP.
In France, where infections reached a record high the weekend with over 13,000 new cases in 24 hours, health authorities opened new testing centers in the Paris region to reduce lines and delays.
And the Norwegian capital of Oslo banned crowds of more than 10 people in private homes after a spike in cases and strongly urged people to wear face masks when traveling on public transportation amid a strike by bus drivers that forced many commuters to take the tram instead.
“The situation in Oslo is serious. This development must be stopped, and we have to do it now,” Mayor Raymond Johansen said.
The rise in infection rates in Britain comes as lawmakers across the political spectrum criticize the government’s testing program amid widespread reports of people having to travel hundreds of miles and tests being discarded because it is taking labs too long to process them. France, likewise, has been plagued by long wait times for results.
Police in the Spanish capital of Madrid and its surrounding towns began stopping people going in and out of working-class neighborhoods that have been partially locked down to combat Europe’s fastest coronavirus spread.
Authorities said that starting on Wednesday, some 860,000 residents must be able to show that their trips out of their neighborhoods are justified for work, study or medical reasons or face fines. Parks are closed and shops and restaurants in the affected zones are limited to 50% occupancy.
The targeted locations have some of the highest transmission rates in Europe. The measure has been met with protests from people who think the restrictions are stigmatizing the poor.
The German city of Munich, with one of the highest infection rates in Germany, will allow only up to five people or members of two households to meet, and will restrict private indoor gatherings such as birthday parties, weddings or funerals to no more than 25 people.
The Czech Republic also faces the possibility of new restrictions after the government appointed epidemiologist Roman Prymula as health minister.
In the spring, the country recorded a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases and deaths compared with hard-hit Western European countries such as Italy, Spain and Britain.
But after the government lifted most of its restrictions over the summer, confirmed cases began making a comeback and reached a record high last week. On Thursday, the day-to-day increase of new cases was higher than 3,000, almost the same number it was in the entire month of March.
Prymula said over the weekend that the loosening of restrictions was done too quickly.
Thousands of people marched in Berlin on Sunday demanding that the government do more to help migrants stuck in Greece, many of whom have been made homeless since fires ravaged the country's largest refugee camp.
The crowd marched through the capital to the landmark Victory Column carrying signs with slogans like "we have space" and "Seehofer, be a Christian" — a reference to Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, reports AP.
A little girl held a sign saying "let the people in" while a woman waved a placard saying "People are suffering, Fortress Europe looks on — and cuddles up to the right."
More than 12,000 migrants and refugees fled the fires, which the Greek government says were deliberately set by a small group of Afghan migrants to protest a virus lockdown at the Moria camp. Thousands have slept outdoors on a nearby roadside in the nights since the blazes.
Germany's government said last week it would take in 1,553 migrants — 408 families with children — from various Greek islands who already have been granted protected status in Greece. The move came on top of a decision to take in up to 150 unaccompanied children as part of a European effort.
The weekend demonstrators demanded that Germany do more, and that the government not block independent state or municipal efforts to take in refugees themselves.
About 3,000 people had registered to take part in the march, but police told the dpa news agency the crowd numbered in the "mid four-digit range."
Pope Francis on Saturday made a call to the political leaders to make sure that Covid-19 vaccines are available to the poorest nations.
In many parts of the world, there is a “pharmacological marginalization” of those without access to health care, reports AP.
Francis met Saturday with members of an Italian aid group that collects donated medicines from pharmaceutical companies and distributes them to clinics and centers helping the neediest.
Francis says far too many people die in parts of the world for lack of drugs widely available elsewhere, and political leaders must take their plight into account.
“I repeat, it would be sad if in distributing the vaccine, priority was given to the wealthiest, or if a vaccine becomes the property of this or that nation and not for everyone,” the pope said.
Francis has previously called for universal access to the vaccine.
Fresh restrictions on social gatherings in England appear to be on the cards as the British government seeks to suppress a sharp spike in new coronavirus infections.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Friday that the country has to “come together” over the coming weeks to get on top of the spike. He said the new transmissions are largely taking place in social settings and are already leading to a doubling in the number of people being hospitalised with the virus every seven to eight days.
“We want to avoid a national lockdown altogether, that is the last line of defense,” he told BBC radio. “It’s not the proposal that’s on the table.”
Following days of criticism over its testing strategy, there is mounting speculation that the government will announce fresh curbs on the hospitality sector, such as pubs and restaurants, potentially involving curfews — something that has already been put in place in areas under local lockdown restrictions, reports AP.
According to the BBC, the British government's chief scientific adviser and medical officer have warned of another serious coronavirus outbreak and many more deaths by the end of October if there were no further interventions soon.
Possible measures being considered under this so-called “circuit break” are asking some hospitality businesses to close, or limiting opening hours, for a period — potentially two weeks.
The testing that is being conducted has already seen a sharp increase in cases over the past couple of weeks that have raised fears that the country with Europe's deadliest coronavirus outbreak may be in for a second wave during the winter.
Critics say it has lost control of the virus and that’s why new measures are being introduced.
Already this week, a ban on social gatherings of more than six people, including children, has come into effect for England. The other nations of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have announced similar clampdowns on meetings. And there are several areas across the UK that are living under localised restrictions.
Tougher restrictions on people and businesses were also announced Friday for parts of the northwest of England, the West Midlands and west Yorkshire. And in a sign that the virus is here to stay through the winter, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, cancelled the annual fireworks display on the River Thames.
‘Doing everything possible’
The latest daily figures show that another 3,395 new confirmed cases were reported. That down on the previous day’s 3,991, the seven-day average is around double the level a couple of weeks back.
As the experience of the pandemic has shown, there's usually a lag of a week or two between a rise in cases and hospitalisations and then a subsequent lag for deaths.
It's clear that the increase in cases is leading to a higher number of people requiring acute care. The number of patients being treated for the disease in hospitals in England increased to 894 on Wednesday, up from 472 on Sept 1, according to the latest government statistics. The number of hospitalised patients on ventilators rose to 107 from 59 in the same period.
The worry is that deaths will start to increase markedly in the days and weeks ahead. Though the UK is recording far fewer deaths on a daily basis than it did earlier this year, it still registered another 21 on Thursday, taking the total of those having died 28 days after testing positive for COVID-10 to 41,705.
“This is a big moment for the country," Hancock said. “We are seeing an acceleration in the number of cases and we are also seeing that the number of people hospitalised with coronavirus is doubling every eight days.”
The government's strategy over the coming weeks, he said, is to contain the virus down as much as is possible whilst ensuring schools and workplaces remain open.
"And doing everything we possibly can for the cavalry that’s on the horizon of the vaccine and mass testing, and the treatments that, frankly, this country has done more than any other around the world to develop,” he said.
Julian Tang, an honorary associate professor in respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, said the various measures in place or being considered, such as limiting gatherings to six or imposing curfews, can act as a “firebreak" in stopping the spread of the virus to the more susceptible groups of the population.
“But these are all incremental and each on their own or in patchy combinations may not be enough, in which case a full local lockdown may be needed to stop the spread," he added.
Satellite images show smoke from wildfires in the western United States has reached as far as Europe.
Data collected by the European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service found smoke from the fires had traveled 8,000 kilometers through the atmosphere to Britain and other parts of northern Europe, reports AP.
The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, which operates some of the Copernicus satellite monitoring systems, said the fires in California, Oregon and Washington state have emitted an estimated 30.3 million metric tonnes (33.4 million tons) of carbon.
“The scale and magnitude of these fires are at a level much higher than in any of the 18 years that our monitoring data covers, since 2003," Mark Parrington, a senior scientist and wildfire expert at Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, said.
Parrington said the smoke thickness from the fires, known as aerosol optical depth or AOD, was immense, according to satellite measurements.
“We have seen that AOD levels have reached very high values of seven or above, which has been confirmed by independent ground-based measurement,” he said.
“To put this into perspective, an AOD of one would already indicate a lot of aerosols in the atmosphere.”
Also read: 10 dead in California fire