“It felt like war-times.”
Costanza Mancini, Yale ‘25, recalls the height of the pandemic in Italy with stark clarity. A resident of Milan, Mancini experienced one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, unable to leave her house without special permission to retrieve food or essential services. Desolate streets and empty grocery store shelves characterized this period of isolation. Despite being one of the most hard-hit regions in the world, Italy managed to bring their case numbers under control through intense restrictions and began reopening in May.
Now, months later, there is a resurgence of cases in Italy, and it is not alone. Madrid just imposed new lockdowns, limiting groups to six people and forcing businesses down to half their normal capacity, after a 40 percent increase in case numbers. France is suffering as well, resorting to canceling non-elective procedures as case numbers reach record highs. The UK has introduced a 10 PM curfew for restaurants and bars and restricted capacity due to rising cases. Once praised for its control of the virus, Europe is now on the brink of a second wave.
The resurgence in cases is directly linked to the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions. Social distancing and mask-wearing are still the most effective ways to prevent transmission of coronavirus. As restrictions relax, citizens have been exploiting opportunities for socialization. Mancini recalls her friends’ adamance about following social distancing protocols; however, once presented with the opportunity to go to the clubs, her sister’s friends went out.
“I was super mad, and two weeks later the clubs closed anyway because the cases went up. Please, at least be consistent in your values and ideas…. You can’t complain about the clubs opening if you are the one who goes.”
Mancini’s experience is not an isolated one. Despite the best public messaging against crowds and indoor gatherings, the risk seems minimized when authorities allow restaurants and bars to reopen.
Many of the outbreaks in the UK and France have also been linked to parties at universities where students are not adhering to the required guidelines. The University of St. Andrews in the UK advised students to undergo voluntary lockdown after an outbreak due to a large party on campus. France has had similar problems containing rebellious youth. In mid-July, there was a tightly packed, 5,000 person EDM concert in Nice. Raves and parties throughout Lozere and Marseille also made headlines for a lack of masks and distancing. Some young people falsely believe that because they are unlikely to die, coronavirus is not a problem. However, many under the age of 65 are still hospitalized, and the spread of the virus amongst young people directly increases the chance of members of vulnerable populations contracting it as well. New studies show that coronavirus can even turn into a pre-existing illness. Fatigue, aches, shortness of breath, restless sleep, and an inability to exercise are just a few of the lingering symptoms that leave survivors unable to return to normal life—all of which pose a direct threat to the young. In fact, in France and the Netherlands, half of all serious cases affect those under 50 years old.
Europe’s re-opening of primary schools is also concerning. In Germany and Norway, a “cohort” approach keeps children in a small pod of the same people every time they attend class to reduce the risk of transmission. However, within the first two weeks of opening, 42 schools in Berlin needed to be temporarily shut down due to superspreading children. Despite best efforts at social distancing and better ventilation, cases were and still are occurring in school settings.
Public fatigue and confusion over restrictions have made new guidelines exceedingly difficult to enforce unless enacted unless under a national lockdown. Confusion about restrictions is also at fault. In Italy, returning to normal life came in phases, some of which had ambiguous guidelines. For example, the second phase of reopening stated that citizens could see their families and close relatives, including significant others. These rules could easily be broken by individuals who may claim to be in a relationship. Ambiguity over specific guidelines creates a margin of error where people believe they are safe even if their actions are not. However, national lockdowns and mandates are also unlikely to garner political or public support due to a longing to return to normalcy.
Domestic deviance among the young led to some of the spikes in Europe, but foreigners are also to blame. Saint-Tropez, the glamorous getaway spot, had very few incidences of COVID-19 during the French lockdown, but as restrictions relaxed, cases spiked. An influx of wealthy travelers and a lack of adherence to guidelines resulted in outbreaks from July to the present. Wearing a mask isn’t very glamorous for the wealthy. These outbreaks have forced restaurant closures and a new mask mandate in the region, hampering economic activity that prefaced its opening in the first place. Greece and Croatia, hotspots for vacationing, have also begun to see spikes, despite missing the first wave that hit Europe. Similarly, both Italy and Germany claim that 30 and 40 percent of new cases have come from abroad. Borders may need to be closed between EU states to prevent viral spread. From younger people’s impropriety to excessive travel to vague guidelines, confounding factors are pushing Europe to the brink of a large second wave.
On their own, the science and available COVID treatments could mitigate a second wave. Even though a certain number of deaths is inevitable, the strain on healthcare systems causes an excess of deaths because every patient cannot receive their resources and full attention. The predicted second wave coincides with the flu season this winter, meaning the same resources allocated for coronavirus treatment will be stretched thin. Additionally, colder weather pushes more people indoors—where the virus can readily spread. Without a quick reduction of the surge of cases, If Europe does not combat the surge in cases quickly, Europe as a whole may be reliving Italy’s experience back in March. The lack of a vaccine means that the only way to curb coronavirus spikes is to follow the guidelines.
Europe’s recent struggles echo that of the United States, who arguably never managed to curb their first wave of cases. Younger demographics in the US have also been reluctant to follow guidelines, composing 38 percent of all hospitalizations of coronavirus. Political and public stratification on how to address the pandemic only adds to the confusion as piecemeal plans for school reopenings, personal protective equipment allocation, and economic relief vary by region. COVID-19’s patchwork spread across the states mirrors that of Europe. An overwhelmed healthcare system in both regions will cause needless deaths and another cycle of isolation and fear.
Successful COVID-19 responses are few and far between, but nations outside of the Western world, namely South Korea, Taiwan, and the Oceanic countries have contained the pandemic well. All of these regions acted early; their reactions were characterized by bipartisan efforts in passing large stimulus packages (mitigating economic impacts), nationwide contact tracing and testing initiatives, and strictly enforced regulations. New Zealand was able to successfully reopen sans coronavirus cases, allowing life to return to normal. Additionally, these regions have governments and cultures that promote community-based efforts. Wearing masks was not a political issue framed as an individual struggle, but a responsibility to protect others and oneself. The public adopted these responses because of a focus on overall societal well being rather than a loss of individual comforts.
For the United States, the initial response to the virus lagged due to political infighting, causing sluggish testing and eventually overwhelmed hospital systems as cases skyrocketed. Reopening businesses, mask-wearing, and social distancing have become political rather than scientific issues, resulting in a country that is still experiencing its first wave. Similarly, in Europe, mixed messaging to the public through the reopening of businesses and bars has caused citizens to revert to pre-pandemic behaviors despite the risk. Both regions have something to learn from those nations that have successfully mitigated COVID-19 in the long term. The only way the US or Europe can effectively tackle this virus is through a concerted and widespread effort to maintain guidelines without pushback.