Europe and Central Asia have become the new “epicenter” for the coronavirus pandemic and face another 500,000 deaths by February, the World Health Organization (WHO) said earlier this month.
Since then, Austria and the Netherlands have imposed new bans and in Germany Angela Merkel has asked unvaccinated people to be vaccinated.
In Great Britain, Boris Johnson has warned of a “blizzard from the east” that could endanger the country’s freedom from blocking. However, the UK recorded the second highest number of new Covid-19 infections in the region after Russia in the WHO’s most recent weekly disease summary.
So what went wrong?
Despite the life-saving effects of vaccines, prevalence remains low in some parts of the region – particularly in the Baltic States, the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe, according to the WHO.
This is partly due to logistical problems, but also to a lack of trust and complacency among the population, according to experts.
While nations around the world struggle with resistance to vaccines, many in Central and Eastern Europe have remarkably low rates, even where supply is not an issue. Bulgaria and Romania, both in the European Union, have fully vaccinated about 23 percent and 35 percent of their population, respectively. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, only 21 percent are fully vaccinated.
The doctor and health statistician Octavian Jurma described his country as a “textbook example” of the “tragic consequences of a political takeover of the pandemic reaction”.
In Germany, anti-vaccination campaigns seem to overlap with support for right-wing or populist politics. Ms. Merkel told Germans on her weekly video podcast she was concerned about what winter would bring, adding that “difficult weeks are ahead”.
Germany’s case numbers have skyrocketed in the last few weeks and reached record levels over the weekend. However, its 277.4 cases per 100,000 population was well below the UK value of 354.6. Bring us to …
The UK is not the only country in the WHO European region to have eased or hesitated public disease control policies in recent weeks.
When it warned that Europe had become a viral epicenter again, WHO deplored the fact that seven countries had eased their stance even though 23 others had “responsibly strengthened” theirs.
“Testing, contact tracing, indoor ventilation and physical distancing remain part of our defense arsenal,” the UN agency announced this month.
The Romanian heads of state and government finally introduced a curfew this month, according to which people who do not have a Covid pass – with a vaccination certificate, a recovery from the virus or a negative test result – stay at home between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. have to. Infections have decreased slightly since then, but hospitals remain overwhelmed.
And Hungary’s government earlier this month ordered the wearing of masks on public transport and allowed private employers to prescribe vaccines for workers.
However, Gyula Kincses, chairman of the Hungarian Medical Association, said it was “too little, too late” and that a mask should be required indoors.
In a recent interview, Viktor Orban, Hungary’s populist prime minister, whose party faces elections next spring, said mandatory vaccinations would “exceed the limits of what Hungarians will accept,” even though he acknowledges that his new restrictions are affecting the virus just slow down, couldn’t stop.
Both Hungary and Serbia have stated that they would rather rely on vaccinations to protect their citizens; However, the hospitals in the latter country are so overcrowded that some only treat Covid-19 patients.
In Russia, most of the country’s 80+ regions suspended a week-long job shutdown early last week to contain spikes in case numbers, although new cases remained near record highs.
In the UK, Mr Johnson insists that despite high infection rates, there is no need to trigger his full “Plan B” to fight the coronavirus this winter. He has no intention of canceling another Christmas party. However, he has admitted the British may not be happy with the situation and urged those over 40 to get a booster vaccination.
Wales has advised people to work from home and put in place Covid Passes for venues like cinemas as the virus is high.
Elsewhere, however, governments go further.
Austria has banned around 2 million people who have not been vaccinated, Federal Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said: “We said to a third of the population: ‘You will not leave your apartment, except for certain reasons.’ That is a massive reduction in contact between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. “
The Netherlands has imposed a three-week partial lockdown with non-essential businesses closing at 6 p.m., reintroduction of a 1.5 million social distancing rule, and a restriction on four people aged 13 and over to visit a house together.
And the German federal government will meet the heads of state and government of its 16 federal states this week to discuss tightening, although the three parties that are negotiating a new government after the elections in September have rejected an extension of the state of emergency, which will expire on November 25 to have.
The WHO has urged governments to “remain cautious, act early on changes and be one step ahead of the virus”. It also said that if 95 percent of people in the area religiously wore face masks, about 188,000 of the 500,000 deaths they feared by February next year could be prevented.
Additional coverage from Associated Press