Fourth Covid Wave in Europe Forces Governments to Seek New Options

Written by: Sophia Halverson

As Europe struggles with a fourth wave of Covid cases, country governments are once again being forced to make tough choices about how to deal with the virus. While most countries are reluctant to impose yet another lockdown, countries that have done so have been met with fierce demonstrations that have sometimes turned violent. Yet with Covid cases rising and booster shots not widely available, there are no good alternatives. Rising cases have also prompted countries like Austria and Germany to consider vaccine mandates for the first time since the pandemic began.   

In the Netherlands, a country where 85 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, a three week partial lockdown was announced on November 11th in an attempt to stop a rising tide of new Covid cases. There had been more than 16,000 new cases  recorded on November 11th, breaking the previous record of 12,000 daily cases last December. Under the rules of the new lockdown, bars, restaurants, and supermarkets must close at 8PM; sports games must be played without fans; non-essential shops must close at 6PM, social distancing guidelines are being reinstated; and government recommendations state that no more than four visitors should be allowed in one home at a time. Schools, cinemas, and theatres are allowed to remain open. Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in a televised address, “We are bringing a very unpleasant message with very unpleasant and far-reaching measures…The virus is everywhere and needs to be combated everywhere.” The new measures are set to be reevaluated on December 3rd, although they may be extended if the rate of new Covid cases does not come down. 

The new restrictions did not go over well with the public. Protests erupted in cities across the Netherlands, with some turning violent. Officers charged groups of protesters in the Hague, fired warning shots, and used a water cannon. 51 people were arrested at a violent protest in Rotterdam. Prime Minister Rutte called the protesters “idiots”, saying, “This was pure violence disguised as protest. There is a lot of unrest in society because we have been dealing with the misery of corona for so long. But I will never accept idiots using pure violence just because they are unhappy.”

The Dutch government is considering taking stronger measures to prohibit unvaccinated people from going to bars and restaurants, but the measure would have to pass Parliament, where there is significant opposition to it. Although Health Minister Hugo de Jonge says the country is “far removed” from the worst case scenario, the number of people in the hospital and ICU with Covid  increased by 25 percent during the week of November 22nd. 

Austria went a step further and plunged the entire country into a full lockdown, not to exceed twenty days. All non-essential businesses are closed and people can only leave home for basic needs like exercising, getting groceries, and going to the doctor. Schools are open, but parents are encouraged to keep their children at home. Austria has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe, with only 66 percent of the population fully vaccinated. Hospitals in some parts of upper Austria, including Salzburg, are overwhelmed by the new cases. At first it was hoped that the lockdown would only target unvaccinated citizens; however, after the rise in Covid cases the rules were applied to everyone. Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said that only having 67 percent of the population vaccinated was “too little too late”. 

Austria has also become the first country in Europe to mandate vaccines. Starting in February 2022 all citizens will be required to be vaccinated. It is unclear exactly how this will be enforced in practice, but cabinet minister Karoline Edstadler suggested those who refuse will be fined 3500 euros. The Chancellor defended the vaccine mandates,  saying, “We want to break out of this vicious circle of virus waves and discussions about lockdowns and the only way, the only exit ticket we have is the vaccine…If you’re in a society you don’t only have rights, you have obligations and if you neglect these obligations then they become compulsory sooner or later.”

This policy decision also prompted backlash. Tens of thousands of people protested in Vienna on Saturday, including members of the far-right political party, FPO (Freedom party). Herbert Kickl, FPO’s leader (who was not able to attend the demonstrations because he had Covid) said the decision meant Austria is now a dictatorship. Despite all the backlash, the lockdown is expected to continue. 

Germany has also faced a rise in Covid cases in the last month, with 71percent of its population vaccinated and 30,000 new cases on November 22nd. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband blamed a third of the population’s unwillingness to get vaccinated on “laziness and complacency”. Health minister Jens Spahn said that due to the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, “By the end of this winter pretty much everyone in Germany…will have been vaccinated, recovered or died.” He also indicated that stronger measures should be applied to slow the spread, as did Angela Merkel. However, it will be up to individual German regions to decide how to proceed, including whether to ban the unvaccinated from public spaces. In an example of how seriously some regions are taking the virus, Christmas markets in areas like Bavaria and Saxony have been closed-a rare occurrence due to their cultural and economic importance in Germany and around Europe.  

Mandatory vaccinations are also gaining traction in several regions, with tourism commissioner Thomas Bareiss claiming it was “unavoidable” and should have been done earlier. However, with the German government in transition after the recent election, the issue will probably be pushed further down the road. Interim measures like the closure of bars, clubs, and large scale outdoor events and further restrictions on unvaccinated citizens are being debated. 

35,000 people protested new Covid restrictions in Belgium. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has said that, “Our goal will be to keep society open to make sure that our businesses remain open, to make sure that our schools remain open, to make sure that our hotels and restaurants and cafes remain open. But with additional protection,” as “it’s not the same virus anymore. This [Delta] is a mutation of the virus, which is much more infectious.” According to the new guidance, people are advised to work from home four days a week until mid-December and three days a week after that; everyone aged ten and above must wear masks inside indoor venues unless they are seated; and nightclubs should test people so they can dance mask-free. Belgium has currently vaccinated about 75% of its population

Ireland, which has fully vaccinated 80% of its population, is also struggling with a surge in Covid cases. It reimposed a midnight curfew on hospitality vendors just weeks after having lifted it. Ireland has also changed its guidance on close contacts of someone with coronavirus, instructing them to isolate for five days and take three antigen tests, as well as encouraging the general public to cut down on socialization and work from home where possible. Even doctors are warning people with symptoms not to trust antigen tests, “you can’t get a PCR test for love nor money” in some parts of the country, however, the government has been reluctant to take more aggressive measures and is currently monitoring the situation. Ministers believe the approach to this fourth wave should not be the same as earlier waves. 

The situation is frustrating, as research finds the efficacy of vaccines declines significantly after 6 to 8 months and guidance on boosters has been muddled at best. Although countries like Germany are recommending boosters six months after the first shot for everyone over eighteen, there are worries about supply. In Ireland a third vaccine may be required for the Covid pass needed to enter most public spaces, but many are currently not able to get a booster due to age restrictions.
Without a clear path out of the pandemic, people may be less likely to follow public health guidance as Covid threatens to interfere with Christmas plans for another year. People are increasingly impatient to go back to living life as normal, while the WHO says that Covid is likely here to stay. With lockdowns having a serious impact on people’s health, not to mention economic repercussions, it is imperative that it stay a last resort – especially with the immunity given by vaccines. Vaccinated people are much less likely to spread the virus than the unvaccinated, even if they get a breakthrough case. It remains to be seen how this calculus will change with the spread of the omicron variant (which had not been announced at the time of writing this article) as scientists learn more about its possible transmission and vaccine evasion risks. Although the health care system has to be protected, interminable lockdowns pose their own risks to citizens’ financial and social well being. It is to be hoped these countries can foster creative solutions to keep people safe and focus on the science while still allowing a semblance of normal life.