European nations are closing schools, cancelling operations and enlisting legions of student medics as overwhelmed authorities face the nightmare scenario of a COVID-19 resurgence at the onset of winter.
With new cases hitting about 100,000 a day, Europe has by a wide margin overtaken the United States, where more than 51,000 COVID-19 infections are reported on average every day.
Most European governments eased lockdowns over the summer to start reviving economies already battered by the pandemic’s first wave, but the return of normal activity – from packed restaurants to new university terms – has fuelled a sharp 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 now the surging infection rates are also testing governments’ resolve to keep schools and non-COVID medical care going.
Even Pope Francis was subject to new coronavirus rules, staying at a safe distance from well-wishers at his weekly audience on Wednesday.
In Lisbon, football fans were unsurprised after Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive, saying it simply showed everyone was at risk of getting infected – and famous athletes were no exception.
Tougher measures will be imposed from Thursday in Portugal to contain the spread, including stricter limits on gatherings and heavier penalties for rule-breaking establishments.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa is also pushing for a nationwide face mask law and the compulsory use of the country’s tracing app in some workforces.
Major European economies such as Germany, England and France have so far resisted pressure to close schools, but in Germany, politicians are debating whether to extend the Christmas-New Year school break to reduce contagion.
The Netherlands has returned to partial lockdown, closing bars and restaurants, but keeping schools open.
The Czech Republic, with 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.
The United Kingdom, France, Russia and Spain accounted for more than half of Europe’s new cases in the week to October 11, according to the World Health Organisation.
French health authorities reported that the number of people being treated in hospital for COVID-19 moved above 9100 for the first time since June 25.
The government had earlier declared a public health state of emergency, giving officials greater powers to impose new measures to contain the spread.
President Emmanuel Macron was expected to unveil further restrictions on Wednesday night, with local media reporting that city curfews were under consideration.
“Curfew … this is a word we haven’t heard in a long time,” shrugged pensioner Francis Boutry at a Paris market, recalling the 1954-62 Algerian war. “What can we do? We have to stop this virus somehow.”
On the other side of the English Channel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces opposition calls for another national lockdown in England.
Hospital admissions are climbing and field hospitals constructed in the spring are once more being readied.
Britain reported 19,724 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, a rise of 2490 from the day before, and a daily death toll of 137, compared to Tuesday’s 143.
Northern Ireland has already announced it will close schools for two weeks and restaurants for four, while the Welsh government said it would enact a law to prevent residents from high-risk areas of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland from visiting.
In Spain, authorities in Catalonia have ordered bars and restaurants to close for 15 days and limited the numbers of people allowed in shops.
In Belgium, with Europe’s second-worst infection rate per capita, hospitals must now reserve a quarter of their beds for COVID-19 patients.
‘We are on the brink of disaster’
Poland is ramping up training for nurses and could consider setting up military field hospitals for coronavirus patients, as daily reported cases hit a record 6526 on Wednesday, officials said.
“I don’t have any good information. We are on the brink of disaster,” said Polish immunologist Pawel Grzesiowski.
He said Poland should be doing more testing, closing schools and supporting doctors in their fight against the pandemic. Instead, he said, the government was trying to blame doctors for the difficult situation.
Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin said on Twitter earlier this week that some doctors were refusing to join coronavirus teams.
Health authorities say Poland has enough hospital beds and respirators for now to tackle the pandemic but localised shortages cannot be ruled out.
The country of 38 million has recorded 141,804 confirmed coronavirus cases so far and 3217 deaths, with the largest cities of Warsaw and Krakow seeing fast increases.