How Europe should deal with covid-19

OFAR DE In the coming years, Covid-19 is likely to establish itself as a seasonal disease, a deadly threat to the elderly and those in poor health, but a major nuisance to everyone else. But as Europe finds out, getting there will be dangerous. The European Union is registering nearly a quarter of a million cases a day, more than ever during the pandemic. Eleven months after vaccination was first started, intensive care units in some regions are nearly full. The World Health Organization warned this week that 700,000 more Europeans could die by March.

Amid mounting alarm, governments are once again on lockdown. Austria has become the first rich country to require all its citizens to be vaccinated or fined; Germany can follow. Protesters take to the streets to protest new restrictions, including in the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. As the disease spreads, there is confusion over what measures are warranted in the campaign to slow the disease.

Dealing with the fourth wave starts with understanding what causes it. Covid is raging in Europe as winter weather sends people indoors, where the virus spreads easily. In the EU just over 60% of the population over 12 years of age is fully vaccinated. That leaves about 150 million people unprotected unless they’ve already acquired immunity from surviving an infection – as many in Britain have. It’s a warning to places like China with a large immunologically naive population.

At the same time, immunity begins to wane from about ten weeks after the second dose. Booster shots are vital, but the EU has been slow to administer them. In Germany, the number of infections doubles every 12 days. One reason is that even now only 8% have received a third dose, compared to 23% in the UK.

As so often during the pandemic, governments have been taken aback by the exponential growth in cases. Because they act late, they have to resort to more extreme measures. Protesters say their freedoms are being trampled. Many of those who reject vaccination argue that the state has no right to force them.

Those arguments are flawed. Two years after the pandemic, it’s clear that your behavior really does belong to your neighbors. One reason is that you are more likely to infect other people if you are not vaccinated. Even if they are protected, some of them will become seriously ill and die – albeit a small proportion. If the state does nothing, the non-incentives will flood the health service and cause many deaths, including many unrelated to Covid. And there is more than one freedom at stake. When governments have to resort to lockdowns to slow the spread of the disease, anti-vaxxers are robbing the vaccinated of their freedom.

What makes government intervention difficult is not the issue of principle, but the practicality of being effective and proportional: knowing what works at what cost and how it varies from country to country. The goal is not to eradicate covid – that would be impossible – but to slow its spread so that cases are manageable. Flattening the curve in this way saves lives by protecting health systems and gains time to administer vaccines and purchase potent new anti-covid drugs, such as molnupiravir.

The simple steps promote hand washing and the demanding wearing of masks in indoor public areas. Both reduce the spread of disease, but neither greatly affects one’s freedom. Next come accelerating boosters, which protect individuals and society at large by quickly restoring the partial ability to block transmission. This should be easy, as hesitation about the vaccine should not be a factor in those who have already received a shot. Countries can also enforce existing measures, such as mandating vaccination or a negative test for access to public places.

That may not be enough to contain the increase in places like Germany and Austria, where most of these measures were in place even as the disease spread. In principle, there is nothing wrong with demanding universal vaccination. In practice, however, it has enough disadvantages to make governments stand still for a while. It takes weeks for a two-dose course to become fully effective, even if anti-vaxxers comply. Austria will not require vaccination until February, when the wave is likely to abate. Furthermore, if you think vaccination is a state conspiracy, coercion will only confirm your suspicions and attract money and people for anti-vax campaigns. The policy could undermine confidence in all vaccines in the coming years. When, as in some European countries, government policies have failed, the only emergency brake is the misery of more lockdowns.

Dig deeper

All our stories related to the pandemic can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also see trackers that appear the worldwide roll-out of vaccines, excess deaths by country and the virus is spreading Europe.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Winter Wave”

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