In 2021, Covid-19 has continued to ravage Europe, causing fear, stress and even despair across the board.
A brief recovery in the summer turned out to be more fragile than it looked, while the emergence of the more transmissible Omicron variant has made people realise that the pandemic may be far from over.
Despite rising infections and inequity in vaccine access, however, people across the continent hope that more stringent measures, new drugs and vaccines would eventually rein in the raging pandemic, which has threatened to stifle an early economic recovery, Xinhua news agency reported.
Following a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths in spring 2021, Europe enjoyed a summertime lull, which made people wonder if they were indeed seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Longing for a "return to normalcy," people welcomed the easing of social distancing and travel restrictions. And then the pandemic was back with a vengeance.
In the first week of November alone, Europe reported nearly 2 million new infections, the largest weekly case count in the region since the start of the pandemic. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, the week also saw nearly 27,000 Covid-19-related fatalities, more than half of all deaths reported globally.
"Europe is back at the epicentre of the pandemic, where we were one year ago," said Hans Kluge, the WHO Regional Director for Europe. In preparation for the fast-approaching year-end holidays and determined to curb the infected cases, the authorities across the continent have been scrambling to re-impose restrictions.
The Netherlands government, for instance, was the first in Europe to impose -- or re-impose rather -- a partial lockdown on November 12, and Austria followed suit with a nationwide lockdown implemented on November 22. Most of these plans and measures predated the identification in southern Africa of Omicron, the coronavirus variant that is more transmissible than the previously dreaded Delta strain. Omicron is also understood to reduce vaccine efficacy but cause less severe symptoms, according to early data.
"World leaders, by continuing to ignore the warnings and focusing only on their national populations, are playing with fire and putting our hard-won progress at risk," Jeremy Farrar, Director of the charitable foundation Wellcome Trust, wrote in an opinion article in The Guardian. "We are not yet in control of this pandemic -- Omicron or an even worse variant could arise at any time," said Farrar, also a former member of the British government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
The pandemic has so far caused over 5.3 million deaths globally. Its recurring waves and the emerging virus variants have placed an enormous burden on healthcare systems and put unprecedented pressure on governments to resort to restrictions. However, these in turn stifled the economies, all but wiped out several industries and increased unemployment.
Pre-pandemic levels of European travel will not be achieved until 2024, the Brussels-based European Travel Commission has estimated. Despite a strong summer rebound, it said international tourist arrivals to Europe are forecast to be 60 per cent below 2019 by the end of 2021.
Across the European Union (EU), the unemployment rate was 6.7 per cent in October 2021, down from 7.5 per cent in October 2020. The jobless rate was the highest in Spain at 14.5 per cent, followed by Greece at 12.9 per cent. The EU economy had rebounded from the pandemic recession faster than expected. As vaccination campaigns progressed and restrictions started to be lifted, growth resumed in spring and continued unabated through summer, underpinned by the re-opening of the economy. But the emergence of the Omicron variant and rapid infections it has driven may have dashed hope of a quick economic recovery.
Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for Economy, pointed out in November three key threats to the current expansion of the European economy: "a marked increase in Covid cases, most acute in areas where vaccinations are relatively low; rising inflation, driven largely by a spike in energy prices; and supply-chain disruptions that are weighing on numerous sectors."
Meanwhile, adding insult to injury have been the mushrooming demonstrations in many European countries against Covid-19 rules and lockdowns, some of which even intensified into riots. The currently available vaccines have largely been able to protect against more severe cases or deaths. However, the stark vaccine divide between the eastern and western parts of Europe remains a serious concern, especially in light of the simultaneous threats of waning immunity and ever more transmissible virus variants.
Nevertheless, there are grounds for hope, with rich experiences built upon repeated waves and perplexing decisions. New drugs and more effective vaccines are also expected to come. In its latest risk assessment, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control reiterated the need for a "multi-layered approach" to delay the spread of Omicron in Europe.
This includes speeding up the vaccination and booster shot drives as well as encouraging or even enforcing mask wearing, social distancing, contact tracing, efficient ventilation, increased hand hygiene and working from home wherever possible. It also requires more efficient coordination of the national approaches and an exchange of good practices and practical experiences.
"No country should believe they are safe, purely because they've vaccinated their own populations," Farrar said. "We will only bring this pandemic to an end by working together globally and sharing access to all the vital public health tools needed to reduce transmission everywhere and save lives."