The continent is facing dark days as winter approaches and the pandemic’s fourth wave is worse than any before it, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.
Europe is once again the centre of the global pandemic. Al Jazeera reports the German health minister issued an unwelcome prediction yesterday, declaring that everyone in his country will be “vaccinated, cured or dead” by the end of winter. Germany’s outgoing chancellor said the pandemic is now at its worst ebb. A fourth wave is sweeping across the continent, with Austria back in lockdown, the Dutch facing a partial lockdown and Germans warned to expect tougher Covid-19 restrictions soon. Christmas markets in hard-hit regions of Europe’s largest economy have already been ordered to close and cases are doubling every 12 days. While hospitals have begun to fill up again, street clashes between police and anti-lockdown protesters have rocked Belgium. It’s a rather grim prelude to Christmas.
What’s driving the fourth wave? Europe’s situation isn’t yet a warning of New Zealand’s vaccinated future, but it is a sign that complacency and large unvaccinated populations aren’t a good mixture. While it’s difficult to draw clear conclusions for an entire continent, some things are clear, according to The Observer. Lower vaccine coverage across central and eastern Europe has fuelled infections, while immunity among people vaccinated early is now waning. The widespread relaxation of restrictions as case numbers fell over the summer, with masking and distancing requirements eased, is also seen as a factor.
Governments are now watching Austria to see if its lockdown works. Vaccines are preventing deaths, but most governments are now concluding that more restrictions are needed, especially over the colder months of the year. As the BBC reports, the World Health Organisation has warned that 500,000 deaths could be recorded in Europe by March and it has called for urgent action. In an echo of the earlier days of Covid, the US government advised against travel to Germany and Denmark yesterday (the latter’s move to drop all restrictions in September having backfired), citing the increasing rate of infections. Many other parts of Europe already face do-not-travel warnings.
How do we compare? Vaccination rates in New Zealand are similar to those in Western Europe. About 74% of the Netherlands and Italy are vaccinated, while France is now preparing for a fifth Covid wave at 69% and Germany faces tough restrictions at 67%. Austria is in full lockdown at 64%. In New Zealand, we’re sitting at around 68% of the total population vaccinated. If that number feels low after weeks of the Beehive loudly proclaiming that the country is one of the world’s most vaccinated, that’s because the ministry of health only reports figures here by eligible population – which provides a much higher figure. Yesterday, the ministry reported that 84% of New Zealand’s eligible population over the age of 12 was fully vaccinated.
Jacinda is watching Europe. In Australia, The Conversation has warned that the country needs to focus on boosters and ventilation if it wants to avoid a fourth wave in the new year. Across the Tasman, New Zealand is preparing to relax restrictions next week. The prime minister said in parliament yesterday that Europe serves as a warning of what could happen after the summer if restrictions are relaxed too quickly:
“The [WHO] is warning about potentially half a million deaths in a region that has access to vaccinations in the same way we do. And, in parts of Europe, there are vaccination levels we would consider high that are moving into lockdown. We need to continue to listen to the best research and advice possible.”
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