Tough restrictions are absolutely necessary to save lives, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned, as a second Covid-19 wave emerges in Europe.
“The evolving epidemiological situation in Europe raises great concern: daily numbers of cases are up, hospital admissions are up”, Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, told a news conference on Thursday.
If European governments relax their restrictions, the course of the virus indicates that by January 2021 the daily mortality rate will be four to five times higher than it was during April, he said. But if 95% of people wear masks and other social distancing measures are applied, Europe could avoid about 281,000 deaths by February, he said.
“Does it mean that we are back to mid-March? No, we are not.” he said.
There are two to three times more recorded daily cases than the April peak but five times fewer deaths. However, the virus has not changed. It has not become more or less dangerous. There are reasons for the lower death rate. One certainly being the number of tests performed, with even higher testing rates among the younger ages, which are less vulnerable.
So far, the epidemiological curve is higher, but the slope is lower and less fatal for now. But it has the realistic potential to worsen drastically if the disease spreads back into older age cohorts after more indoor social contacts across generations, said Kluge.
Those resisting small restrictions, such as hand hygiene, wearing masks, using contact tracing apps and staying home when they have possible symptoms, are increasing the likelihood of more disruptive restrictions.
In March, lockdown was a shutdown, where every corner of our society and economy was halted – no running businesses, no outings, no schools, no movement, and all borders closed. In March, lockdown was the default option because we were caught off guard, said Dr Kluge. Today, lockdown means a very different thing. It means a stepwise escalation of proportionate, targeted and time-limited measures. Measures in which all of us are engaged both as individuals and as a society together in order to minimise collateral damage to our health, our economy and our society.
Any further escalation of measures would be the result of failure to comply with the preceding ones, and it is therefore up to us to accept them while they are still relatively easy to follow instead of resuming the path of severity, which many tragically suffered from last spring, he said.
In addition, governments must consider mental health and domestic violence when imposing restrictions, and do everything possible to keep schools open. “The message to governments is: don’t hold back with relatively small actions to avoid the painful damaging actions we saw in the first round.”
WHO Europe statement (in English)