Customers in Rome’s bookstore paid no attention to circular stickers on the floor and instructed them to stamp COVID while maintaining a “distance of at least 1 metre”.
“These are things of the past,” said Sylvia Giuliano, 45, who wore no mask while browsing the paperbacks. She described the red signs, with their crossed-out, pointed coronavirus areas, as artifacts “like the bricks of the Berlin Wall.”
Across Europe, faded stickers, signs and billboards stand as haunting relics of past struggles against Covid. But while remnants of the deadliest days of the pandemic are everywhere, so is the virus.
A common saying heard across Europe is that everyone has covid as the BA.5 omicron subvariant fuels an explosion of cases across the continent. However, governments are not cracking down, including in the previously hardest-hit countries, in large part because they are not seeing a significant increase in severe cases, crowding of intensive care units, nor waves of deaths. And Europeans have clearly concluded that they have to live with the virus.
Seats with a faint blue social-distancing sign urging Paris Metro riders to keep this space free are almost always taken. Stacks of masked Germans pass by torn signs in shops and restaurants reading “Maskenpflicht” or the requirement for masks. In a building materials store north of Madrid, the cashier walks down the aisles without a mask before sitting behind a window of Plexiglas. On a recent day at Café Sicilia in Noto, Sicily, the feet of three different people stood in the same “keep safe distance” circle as they shouted at cannoli.
And many more are traveling again, both within Europe and outside its borders, bringing much-needed tourist money to nations desperate to bolster their economies.
“It’s the way it is,” said microbiology professor Andrea Crisanti, who served as a top adviser to Italian leaders during the coronavirus emergency. One glimmer of hope, he said, was that summer infections would lead to greater immunity to the traditionally more difficult winter months. But allowing the virus to spread on such a large scale, he said, also created a “moral duty” on the part of governments to protect the elderly and otherwise vulnerable who remain at risk of serious illness despite vaccination.
“We need to change our paradigm. I don’t think there is a future for measures aimed at reducing transmission,” he said, with restrictions including social exhaustion, greater acceptance of risk, and the biology of a virus. Listing the reasons it had become so contagious that “there is nothing that can stop it.”
It seems to be everywhere in Europe, where officials take solace in the apparently low incidence of serious illness and death, even as some experts worry about the toll on the vulnerable, likely regular infections. may lead to prolonged covid-19 and an increased capacity for mutations that lead to more dangerous versions of the virus.
“Infections are showing no signs of abating, with rates reaching the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave last in March this year,” said Sarah Crofts, head of the analytical team for the Office of Statistics. The number of hospitalizations has more than quadrupled since May, according to government data. But deaths due to the virus, while increasing, were not approaching the levels recorded at the beginning of the year.
“Overall, from a public health perspective, we need to be cautious, but this is not likely to reverse course,” said Neil Ferguson, a public health researcher at Imperial College London.
There have been some changes. In April, Europe’s drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency, advised that second booster shots would only be needed for people over the age of 80, at least until “a resurgence of infection”. On July 11, she decided the moment had come, recommending second booster shots to everyone over 60 and all vulnerable people.
“This is how we protect ourselves, our loved ones and our vulnerable populations,” European Commissioner for Health and Food Security Stella Kyriakides said in a statement. “There is no time to lose.”
Across Europe, officials are trying to strike a balance between reassurance and complacency. In Germany, the Robert Koch Institute, the federal organization responsible for tracking the virus, has said there is “no evidence” that the BA.5 iteration of the virus is more lethal, but the country’s health minister Karl Lauterbach shared the tweets. A hospital doctor in the German city of Darmstadt posted saying that the COVID ward of his clinic was overcrowded with severely symptomatic patients.
Germany’s Vaccine Board has yet to update its advice on the fourth shot, recommending a second booster only for patients older than 70 and at-risk patients.
In France, where the past week has reported an average of 83,000 cases a day, nearly a third more than a month ago, the health minister, François Braun, has turned away from new restrictions. He told RTL radio last week that “we have decided to bet on the responsibility of the French” as he recommended the wearing of masks in crowded places and encouraged a second vaccine booster dose for the most vulnerable.
He is convinced that France, where nearly 80% of people have been fully vaccinated, and its hospitals, could face a new wave of infections and focused more on gathering data to track the virus. Is. “Minimal but necessary measures” were the right approach, Braun recently told the Law Commission of France’s parliament. Last week, a proposal to continue the power to require the government to require proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test when entering France failed to pass parliament.
In Spain, where the vaccination rate exceeds 85% and more than half the eligible population has received a booster, the pandemic has felt like an afterthought as Spaniards return to their usual beach vacations and tourists flock to the island. welcomed from Encouraged by the low occupancy of intensive care wards, officials said monitoring the situation would suffice.
Not everyone was satisfied.
“We’ve forgotten practically everything,” said Rafael Vilasanjuan, director of policy and global development at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, a research body.
But other parts of Europe had even more hands. In the Czech Republic, where there are no restrictions, including in hospitals, the virus is running rampant, and officials openly predict a surge in cases.
In Italy, the first Western country to face the full force of the virus, reports of new cases have been rising steadily since mid-June, although they fell last week. The average daily number of deaths has more than doubled in the past month, but the number of hospitalizations has not decreased. The health minister, Roberto Speranza, announced that the country would follow the European regulator’s recommendation to give a second COVID-19 booster shot to all people over the age of 60 – not just those over 80 and vulnerable patients.
“In the current situation, you need to implement a unified policy to protect vulnerable people who, despite vaccination, are still at risk of developing serious, serious disease,” said Crisanti, a former adviser to Italian leaders on the virus. Told. , who lamented that he still died a huge number of deaths every day from an infectious disease.
He predicted that over time, virus deaths would decrease, as vulnerable older people died, and the virus would become increasingly endemic. He said that in future people in the age group of 70 to 90 years will have memory and protection of the virus in their immune system.
At that point, the broken signs of Europe’s struggle with COVID will indeed belong to another era. In the meantime, however, another woman at the Roman bookstore, dressed in an N95 mask, worried that the stickers under her feet would become relevant again.
“Reality,” she said, “moves faster than the laws.”