That Europe would see a second wave of the coronavirus disease was always known. The onset of winter, the reopening, and the reluctance of governments to impose lockdowns, it was clear, would combine to create a second wave of some magnitude.
As it turns out, it’s a second wave that is more pronounced than the first. France’s seven-day average of new cases, according to the New York Times database, was 17,387 on October 13, almost four times the peak of a weekly average of around 4,500 seen in early April. Spain’s seven-day average was 10,097 on October 13, up from around 8,000 seen on April 1 during the peak of the first wave. Even Germany, widely feted for getting the pandemic under control quickly, is seeing around 4,000 daily cases on average, just around 27% lower than peaks it saw, again in early April. And Italy, ravaged by the first wave, but then cheered for getting its act together, is seeing daily cases of around 5,000, just 10% lower than the number of daily cases it saw in late March.
That Europe would weather the second wave better (read: have fewer deaths) than it did the first wasn’t always clear, although the rapidity with which doctors and researchers discovered, especially over the past five to six months, how to keep people alive — even those with severe cases of Covid-19 — suggested this. France’s seven-day average of daily deaths was 82 (according to the NYT database) on October 13, far below the 1,000+ number seen in early April. The trend is similar in other European countries.
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Finally, that Europe would find its hospitals overwhelmed by the second wave was a surprise. After all, these countries saw this happening during the first wave, and one would have expected them to do enough to prevent a recurrence. Yet, on October 14, france24.com reported Martin Hirsch, the head of a hospital group, as saying that 90% of the Greater Paris area’s intensive care unit capacity would be filled by the third week of October.
In Germany, Reuters reported on October 9 that testing laboratories in cities including Berlin were functioning close to capacity, and that hospital administrators feared significant staff shortages, something that could affect the response of a country which was relatively unscathed in the first wave of the pandemic partly because it had sufficient intensive care beds and ventilators. And in Spain, capital Madrid’s hospitals have been overwhelmed for weeks.
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This is an important learning for India’s policymakers and administrators coordinating the response to Covid-19: there will be a second wave (winter, opening up, and the reluctance to re-impose lockdowns are factors that are applicable here too); it could be stronger than the first; and, if unprepared, hospitals could find themselves overwhelmed all over again.
So, how is Europe coping?
As the number of cases increases, many of the countries are losing their reluctance to impose restrictions and lockdowns, even as they are fully aware of the devastating economic impact of these. France has imposed night curfews in many cities; Germany and the Czech Republic have ordered the closure of restaurants in many areas; Spain has imposed restrictions too, including curfews for restaurants; and the Netherlands has actually enforced a partial lockdown. The UK — its seven-day average of daily cases was around 15,000 on October 13, three times the peak of the first wave seen through April and May — has announced a so-called “three-tier traffic light” system to regulate the imposition of local lockdowns.
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These too, constitute learnings for India, which has announced a campaign to contain an anticipated spurt in cases during the coming festive season. That there will be one is a given. What matters is how we deal with it.