Is Western Europe losing its grip on the coronavirus?

For weeks now, Western Europe has been gazing in awestruck horror at the United States, whose ramshackle state and rotten, conspiracy-infested politics have created the worst coronavirus outbreak in the developed world. France, Germany, Spain, and Italy all suffered terrible early outbreaks but got things under control, while America has been equal parts international object lesson and laughingstock.

But it now seems Western Europe is starting to experience a minor resurgence of the virus, taking some of the shine off their success. While these countries will likely get it under control much faster than they did the first time, it’s yet another warning that controlling the pandemic is going to be a difficult, long-term project. Only an effective vaccine will allow a full return to normal life in most places.

Let’s dig into the numbers. Just like in American states, there is enormous variation between different countries. Norway is seeing just a handful of cases per day, Italy a few hundred, France, and Germany nearly a thousand, and Spain nearly 2,000. The last country is especially worrisome, given the gruesome death toll it experienced during the first wave.

Reporting indicates that the increase stems from the same factors that caused the initial outbreak: international travel and indoor congregation. This is prime tourism season on the continent, and like Americans, Europeans are desperate to get back to some semblance of normal life. Several major outbreaks in Spain have been traced to nightclubs, no doubt because people had been packed together in confined, loud spaces. Many are also sick and tired of control measures like wearing masks — indeed, in France in early July several men assaulted a bus driver who asked them to comply with the rule that they be masked on public transport. The driver later died of his injuries.

However, it seems likely that most of Europe will get a handle on things before they spiral out of control. Even if we adjust for population, Spain is still seeing less than a quarter as many new daily cases as the U.S., and its positive test rate is just 3-5 percent, whereas back in April it was over 20 percent. That means the current surge appears larger than it really is in comparison to the first one, because many more cases were likely missed back then.

What’s more, these nations are far better prepared than they were at the beginning of the year. They have stockpiled medical equipment and protective gear, putting their hospitals in a much better position. Mass testing means these countries will not be caught flat-footed as they were in February and March, and they also now have test-trace-isolate protocols in place to find and squelch outbreaks before they spread to the rest of the country. Already the Spanish government has closed several categories of venues, and introduced new lockdowns in some towns — though it does seem its pandemic control bureaucracies are well short of the German or Italian standard, and the government has struggled politically to shore them up.

On the other hand, Italy was hit about as badly as Spain, but it has thus far dodged a resurgence after opening back up, thanks to a vigilant state and an abundance of caution among the citizenry. The Italian government has held on to emergency powers allowing it to impose various controls if necessary, and its public health authority has set up a monitoring system that collates granular virus data from around the country every week. “People are very careful: They wear masks and they respect social distancing. There is a very high level of awareness,” Donatella Albini, an Italian public health official, told The Wall Street Journal. Once burned, twice shy, as the saying goes.

Whether governments and citizens can keep their guard up will be the key factor in controlling the pandemic. In America, we all sacrificed our social lives and did spectacular damage to our economy to stop the initial surge, but because President Trump did nothing with the time thus gained — on the contrary, he took steps to inflame the spread — the virus is still out of control here. Western European governments did successfully contain the virus, but as they are learning, it will flare back up again if given the slightest opportunity (unless it is completely eradicated, which is probably impossible outside of a few island states like New Zealand and Taiwan).

In particular, always wearing a mask and keeping one’s distance indoors is going to be wise policy for the indefinite future. Northern European countries could stand to improve here, as polls show people there are much less likely to wear masks than in Spain or Italy. If new infections are kept to a low enough level, then it should be possible to partly reopen the most risky locations like bars and clubs (especially with improved ventilation, which has gotten less attention than it deserves given how we know the virus generally spreads). But governments still must be ready to spring into action on a moment’s notice should a local outbreak occur. Not even the most competent state can relax until there is an effective vaccine and it has been administered to its whole population.

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