European nations yesterday were extending restrictions well beyond social life to close schools, cancel surgeries and enlist legions of student medics as overwhelmed authorities faced their nightmare scenario of a COVID-19 resurgence at the onset of winter.
Most European governments eased lockdowns over the summer to start reviving economies already heading for unprecedented downturns and job losses from the pandemic’s first wave, but the return of normal activity — from packed restaurants to new university terms — fueled a sharply rising spike in cases all over the continent.
Bars and pubs were among the first to shut or face earlier closing in the new lockdowns, but the surging infection rates are also testing governments’ resolve to keep schools and medical care going.
The Czech Republic, which has Europe’s worst rate per capita, has shifted schools to distance learning and plans to call up thousands of medical students. Hospitals are cutting non-urgent medical procedures to free up beds.
“Sometimes we are at the edge of crying,” said Lenka Krejcova, a head nurse at Slany Hospital near Prague, as builders hurried to turn a general ward into a COVID-19 department.
Poland is ramping up training for nurses and considering creating military field hospitals, Moscow is to move many students to online learning and Northern Ireland is closing schools for two weeks.
“I don’t have any good information. We are on the brink of disaster,” said immunologist Pawel Grzesiowski in Poland, which reported a record 6,526 infections and 116 deaths yesterday.
Major European economies such as Germany, France and the UK have so far resisted pressure to close schools, a move that during the spring lockdowns created hardship as many parents juggled childcare and working from home.
In Germany, politicians were debating whether to extend the Christmas-New Year school break to reduce contagion, although critics say there is no evidence schools have been hot spots.
The Netherlands returned to partial lockdown yesterday, closing bars and restaurants, but kept schools open.
European infections have been running at an average of almost 100,000 a day — about one-third of the global total — forcing governments to tighten restrictions, while attempting to calibrate them to protect health without destroying livelihoods.
The UK, France, Russia and Spain accounted for more than half of Europe’s new cases in the week to Sunday, according to the WHO.
“It’s a mess, it’s a mess, my son, what can I tell you? We really don’t know how we are going to end up,” a pensioner in Rome said.
French President Emmanuel Macron was expected to unveil further restrictions later yesterday, with media reporting that city curfews were under consideration.
France’s five largest cities — Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse and Lille — are already on maximum alert, with bars and gyms closed, and restaurants under strict controls.
“Curfew ... this is a word we haven’t heard in a long time,” pensioner Francis Boutry said at a Paris market, recalling the 1954-1962 Algerian war. “What can we do? We have to stop this virus somehow.”
In Belgium, with Europe’s second-worst infection rate per capita, hospitals were ordered to reserve one-quarter of their beds for COVID-19 patients.
“We can’t see the end of the tunnel today,” Renaud Mazy, managing director of the University Clinics of Saint-Luc in Brussels, told La Premiere radio.
Meanwhile, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was heading to Italy after testing positive for COVID-19 in Portugal.
Portuguese and Italian media said that the Juventus forward was traveling on an “ambulance plane” from Lisbon to Turin to finish his isolation period.
Ronaldo had been separated from the rest of the Portugal squad after testing positive for COVID-19 on Monday. He was said to be asymptomatic and in good health.
Additional reporting by AP
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