As Virus Surges in Europe, Resistance to New Restrictions Additionally Grows
LONDON – France has put cities on “maximum alert” and ordered many to close all bars, gyms and sports centers on Saturday. Italy and Poland have publicly prescribed masks. The Czech Republic has declared a state of emergency, and German officials fear new outbreaks may soon grow beyond the control of their vaunted testing and traces.
Across Europe and beyond, Covid-19 has returned and, like last spring, officials have cited restrictions in an attempt to suppress it. But this time it’s different.
Still affected by the economic, emotional, and physical strain of statewide lockdowns that virtually brought the continent to a standstill, government officials are finding that the public may not be as compliant the second time around.
In some places, new restrictions are being accepted, albeit reluctantly, because the alternative – new nationwide bans – would only be worse. But there is growing skepticism that the public would even agree to such a drastic step.
Instead, in the face of mounting exhaustion and frustration with pandemic restrictions, governments are trying to strike a tighter course between containing the virus and tolerating their public and economies. This is especially true in democracies where governments are ultimately accountable to the electorate.
“This time it will be much more difficult,” said Cornelia Betsch, Heisenberg Professor for Health Communication at the University of Erfurt in Germany, citing “pandemic fatigue”.
As the crisis deepens, the once solid consensus in many countries to participate in victims to fight the virus is showing signs of breaking. New rules are being challenged in court. National and local leaders fight.
In Spain, the government passed a state of emergency in the Madrid region on Friday. The move was taken over the heads of the regional supreme court and against local politicians, and within hours the nation’s main opposition leader asked the prime minister to appear in parliament to justify it.
The intense feud in Spain reflects a broader political opposition that national leaders face worldwide.
Business groups are warning that entire industries could collapse if restrictions go too far. Sporadic protests, usually but not always limited to the political fringes, have broken out. Public skepticism in many countries is fueled by the failure of governments to deliver on big promises regarding measures such as contact tracing, testing and other measures.
In perhaps the most telling hint that people are either confused or stopped hearing guidance, cases continue to explode, even in places where new measures have already been announced.
Portugal imposed new restrictions last month, but more than 1,000 daily infections were recorded on Thursday for the first time since April. In the north of England, where new rules have come and gone and come again, the most tangible result has been to create confusion, not slow down the contagion. Officials are now warning that hospitals could face a greater flood of patients than they did at the height of the pandemic in April.
The World Health Organization announced on Thursday a record increase in coronavirus cases worldwide by one day. Europe as a region currently reports more cases than India, Brazil or the United States.
The threat of harsher new measures has already been seen in Israel, the only country to have ordered a second nationwide lockdown. It has led to chaos and rampant protests.
“People see the decisions as political rather than health-related,” said Ishay Hadas, a protest organizer in Israel, arguing that masked outdoor gatherings pose minimal risk. “The main problem is the lack of public trust.”
While problems related to wearing masks and other prudent measures are far less politicized in Europe, especially when compared to America, the prospect of a winter under severe restrictions or even bans leads to renewed frustration and division in political parties.
With the UK expected to announce even wider measures on Monday, many have focused on curbing drinking and carousel. Opposition Labor Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has called on the government to produce scientific evidence showing that early pub closings are slowing transmission.
Even people in charge of advising the UK government cannot keep up and cannot explain some of the action.
“People are very confused,” said Robert West, professor of health psychology at the University of College London. Mr. West is a member of the subcommittee of SAGE, a scientific body that advises the government on political issues.
“I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say I know what the rules are,” he said.
In a part of the euro zone that the WHO team has studied in depth, around half the population suffers from pandemic fatigue, Betsch said. These people searched for less information about the virus, were less concerned about the risks and less willing to follow recommended behaviors.
Slowing down the spread of the virus that lives on human contact still depends on people changing their behavior.
“The only other option is to lock us up again,” said Francesca Del Gaudio, 24, as she and a friend who, like almost everyone around them, wore masks across the piazza on Thursday, the first day of Italy’s expanded measures Trilussa in Rome went. “And we don’t want that.”
But if people don’t listen to guidance, it remains to be seen whether severe punishments will chastise them. Violations in Italy are now punished with a fine of 1,000 euros.
Surveys in countries across Europe that have been audited by health authorities show that a clear majority of people are willing to comply if they are well explained and easy to follow.
People might also be more willing to submit to new restrictions when they see hospitals full and the death toll rising, Ms. Betsch said.
The regulatory landscape in Europe is changing so quickly, however, that governments run the risk of undermining the distortions of basic guidelines in order to avoid further lockdowns. Some steps just seemed absurd.
In Spain, restaurants in Madrid have been ordered to stop serving after 10 p.m. and close at 11 p.m. – when many people are just thinking of sitting down to eat.
“Everyone knows that we dine much later in Spain than in other countries. So it’s economic nonsense not to be open until midnight,” said Florentino Pérez del Barsa, a Madrid restaurateur who no longer professionally uses his legal name Florentino Pérez Rato to avoid confusion with the head of Real Madrid football club.
While public attention is often focused on those who shout the loudest – like the thousands who recently protested outside the Reichstag in Berlin and in London’s Trafalgar Square, calling the pandemic a hoax and a government-led conspiracy – they are just representing about 10 percent of the public, according to a study from Germany.
About 20 percent of people are against regulations, presumably for personal, emotional, and financial reasons.
But Ms. Betsch, who worked with the WHO research group, said the bigger concern is roughly half the population – the “fence sitters”.
They are open to regulation but need to be heard and educated, she said, and new government guidelines that are fragmented only add to frustration.
The choices that national governments face are arduous.
The French government, watching with concern as hospital beds filled, extended its “red zone” to many major metropolitan areas, including Lyon, Grenoble, Lille and Saint-Etienne, as well as Paris, Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, on high alert. Toulouse residents protested Friday fearing their city would be involved.
Xavier Lencou, an engineering student who was lining up for a coronavirus test near Les Halles in central Paris, said more people around him were respecting measures such as wearing masks, unlike in the spring.
But he feared that stricter measures would push people to their limits.
“If we got a new ban, it could be worse because people wouldn’t respect it.” he said.
Jérôme Fourquet, a political analyst at the French IFOP electoral institute, said managing the economy and the epidemic is like “squaring the circle”, all the more so since “our room for maneuver is not at all what it was last March” .
He said the French government now has less money to spend propping up businesses and people are less willing to accept new restrictions.
For Chancellor Angela Merkel, too, fears that a second lockdown could ruin the fragile economic recovery has led to an increasing setback from citizens and companies.
Ms. Merkel said this week that she does not want a situation like the one in the spring to repeat itself – which means another lockdown – and warned on Friday that the next 10 days would be critical.
The country’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper, however, reflected the feelings of many Germans in its editorial on Friday, warning that a lockdown would lead to “mass unemployment, bankruptcies and endless burdens for families and children”.
“It’s not about what Merkel wants – she MUST work with the states and cities to prevent a second lockdown!” warned the picture editors. “In a free country, the majority cannot be made to pay for the behavior of some idiots.”
In Germany, as in other countries, the focus is on changing the behavior of young people.
“Isn’t it worth being a little patient now?” Mrs. Merkel asked them. “Everything will return – partying, going out, fun without corona rules. But right now, something else is most important, being aware of each other and sticking together. “
But public patience in Germany and elsewhere is decreasing.
It’s important to follow rules like wearing masks and washing your hands, said June Nossin, 32, a Belgian-born therapist who sits on the terrace of a Parisian cafe. But there was a limit to what people could take.
“When everything is forbidden,” she said, “people go crazy.”
The reporting was written by Raphael Minder from Spain, Christopher Schuetze and Melissa Eddy from Berlin, Adam Nossiter, Aurelien Breeden and Antonella Francini from France, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem and Elizabeth Povoledo and Emma Bubola from Italy.