European Hopes for Coronavirus Relief Rise—and Then Fall Again

The curve appeared to be flattening at last, but the latest numbers augur a longer crisis.

Spanish soldiers patrol the streets of Valencia to enforce the national lockdown due to the coronavirus on April 7.
Spanish soldiers patrol the streets of Valencia to enforce the national lockdown due to the coronavirus on April 7. Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images

MADRID—After weeks of watching the death toll relentlessly rise, then crest, and then start to descend, there was a palpable sense in places like Spain, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe that the worst of the outbreak might finally have been behind them. The daily death count in Spain, still in the high hundreds, fell four days in a row. The curve seemed to be bending. Businesses were talking about getting back to work. The government set an end date for the national state of alarm that had everyone inside their houses and police and army trucks outside in the streets.

Then, on Tuesday, the curve shot back up again. On Wednesday, for the second day in a row, deaths jumped back up to more than 750, bringing the official tally to 14,555. Those are the official numbers; the Madrid regional government now acknowledges that thousands more deaths due to COVID-19 haven’t been properly counted. Nobody knows how many are infected; nobody knows how many have died. Hard to turn the corner, or even know where the corner is, when it’s pitch-black and the headlights are out.

But the question is pressing—and not just in Europe. In the United States, which probably isn’t close to peaking in terms of either diagnosed cases or deaths, many are now calling for a quick return to normal—the very day that coronavirus-related deaths marked a new high. States are trying to figure out how to revive the economy after the biggest economic gut punch since the Great Depression, before the second punch has even landed.

Italian businesses, in total shutdown since late March, are using the putative bending of the curve to beg the government to let them reopen factories. Austria, too, hopes for a prompt return to something like business as usual. Even Spain, which just extended the nationwide state of alarm until almost the end of April, plans to let industry get back to work after Easter.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

It’s a risky strategy. Countries that seemed on top of the coronavirus outbreak, whether Singapore or Japan, are struggling with their second, or even third, wave of infections soon after relaxing initial restrictions. Japan just had to declare a monthlong national emergency.

If there’s a reason many in Spain feel hopeful that the fever dream might be breaking, that’s because the government implemented, if belatedly, a nationwide total shutdown on activity that goes far beyond the tepid “social distancing” recommendations in places like the United States—and strongly enforced it. Even with the glimmer of hope in recent days, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez extended the state of alarm through late April because, he said, “we don’t want to let our guard down.”

Roadblocks are ubiquitous, especially on Fridays. Shops give receipts “por si la policía” (in case the cops question why you’re out), not for the customer. Kids, of course, aren’t allowed outside ever, for any reason. Schools have been closed for a month and will likely remain so for the rest of the term.

Masks are all but obligatory everywhere. Grocery stores were quick to slap tape distancing lines on the floor at checkouts and plexiglass barriers above the tills; security guards outside limit the number of people who can shop at any one time. Cash has disappeared. Debit card payment was always contactless, but now even the need to punch in a PIN code has suddenly vanished. The mores of human contact, in a place where strangers normally get not a handshake but two kisses, are now neurotically Scandinavian.

But while there is, or seemed to be, a light at the end of the tunnel—and the ritual 8 p.m. balcony applause for the country’s health care workers has turned from grim-faced to something like hopeful—nobody knows how long the tunnel is.

“We’ve passed the peak, but the question is the speed of the downslope—and it’s going to be slow,” said Pere Godoy, the president of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology. “All the measures in place, we are going to have to keep applying them, the social distancing, the hand washing, everything we’re doing, we are going to have to keep doing it.”

Experts estimate that as many as 90 percent of coronavirus infections in Spain have gone unrecorded: That means instead of 140,000-odd cases, the country could well have more than a million. The government now plans to roll out a massive test of thousands of carefully selected households to get some sort of handle on the true scope of infection. That’s a prerequisite to opening up all, or any, of the country anytime soon. And that’s supposing that prior infection actually does confer immunity, which isn’t at all clear from very preliminary studies on recovered patients in China.

“We don’t know much about immunity yet. Surely there will be some, that lasts for some time, but all that we will have to learn in the months ahead,” Godoy said. “What we really don’t know is whether herd immunity will be decisive or lasting.”

The official death count, currently the world’s second-highest, is also a meaningless number. Only those who died in a hospital after a positive test for COVID-19 are included, not those who died before hospitalization or in nursing homes or from a sudden unexplained onset of pneumonia. After many thousands more bodies than should have piled up in cemeteries in Madrid in recent weeks, Spanish authorities are recognizing that the official tallies are undercounts; regional governments say the real figure could be two, three, or six times higher.

But no matter how hard it is to figure out if the wave is cresting, economies in Europe are clamoring to get back to work. In Italy, especially in the north, factories have been shuttered for weeks and could remain closed weeks more, with disastrous job losses. As the official infection and death numbers bend down, calls to reopen the economy there are growing stronger. Same in Spain, where unemployment numbers—already double-digit—are skyrocketing.

The European Union this week said it had a plan to coordinate the reopening of closed-down countries but then suddenly gave up the effort, as it has on coordinating a pan-European financial response to the challenge. Now countries are going their own way—Austria, the Czech Republic, perhaps Italy, probably Spain next week—in different sectors, at different paces. Nobody knows what kind of infection resurgence is possible once social distancing stops, though early indications from Asia are sobering.

“It’s to be expected that there will be fresh waves of outbreaks if normal life goes back to how it was before” all the social distancing measures were put in place, Godoy said.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the more successful lockdowns and social distancing are, the less necessary they seem in the first place. Both Britain and the United States, for instance, are revising downward their initial catastrophic estimates of coronavirus-related deaths—because they finally locked some things down. Those new studies that say things will be better than we feared also say we need to keep things shut down longer than you think.

Now the fears are mounting that the light at the end of the tunnel really could be an oncoming train.

Update, April 10, 2020: This article was updated with new information from Pere Godoy, the president of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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