Customers at the Rome bookshop paid no attention to circular stickers on the floor asking them to eradicate Covid by maintaining “a distance of at least 1 meter”.
“Those are things of the past,” said Silvia Giuliano, 45, who was not wearing a mask as she browsed through paperbacks. She described the red signs, with their crossed-out and spiky coronavirus spheres, as artifacts “like bricks from the Berlin Wall”.
Across Europe, faded stickers, signs and billboards are the ghostly remnants of past struggles against Covid. But if remnants of the deadliest days of the pandemic are everywhere, so is the virus.
A common refrain heard across Europe is that everyone has Covid as the BA.5 omicron subvariant is fueling an explosion of cases across the continent. Governments, however, are not cracking down, including in the previously strictest countries, largely because they are not seeing a significant rise in severe cases, or overcrowded intensive care units, or waves of deaths. And Europeans have clearly concluded that they have to live with the virus.
Seats bearing faded blue social distancing signs urging Paris metro users to keep this place free are almost always taken. Crowds of unmasked Germans walk past tattered signs in shops and restaurants reading “Maskenpflicht,” or mask requirement. In a building materials store north of Madrid, the cashier walks the aisles without a mask before sitting behind a plexiglass window. On a recent day at Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Sicily, the feet of three different people stood in a single ‘keep a safe distance’ circle as they demanded cannoli.
And many people are traveling again, both within Europe and beyond its borders, bringing much-needed tourist money to countries desperate to bolster their economies.
“That’s how it is,” said Andrea Crisanti, a microbiology professor who served as a top consultant to Italian leaders during the coronavirus emergency. A silver lining, he said, was that summer infections would create more immunity for the traditionally tougher winter months. But letting the virus circulate at such huge levels, he said, has also created a “moral duty” on governments to protect older and otherwise vulnerable people who remain at risk of serious illness despite vaccination.
“We have to change the paradigm. I don’t think measures to reduce transmission have a future,” he said, listing reasons such as social exhaustion with restrictions, greater risk acceptance and the biology of a virus. become so contagious that “there is nothing that can stop this.”
This appears to be the case across Europe, where officials take comfort in the seemingly low incidence of serious illness and death, even as some experts worry about the toll of vulnerable people, the possibility that routine infection could lead to a long Covid and the increased potential for mutations leading to more dangerous versions of the virus.
“Infections show no signs of abating, with rates approaching levels last seen in March this year at the height of the omicron BA.2 wave,” said Sarah Crofts, who leads the team at Bureau of Statistics analysis. Hospitalizations have more than quadrupled since May, according to government data. But deaths from the virus, while on the rise, were not approaching the levels seen at the start of the year.
“Overall, from a public health perspective, we need to remain vigilant, but that’s no reason to reverse course,” said Neil Ferguson, a public health researcher at Imperial College London.
Some changes have taken place. In April, Europe’s medicines regulator, the European Medicines Agency, said a second booster shot would only be needed for people over the age of 80, at least until there is “a resurgence of infections”. On July 11, she decided that time had come, recommending a second booster shot for all people over 60 and all vulnerable people.
“This is how we protect ourselves, our loved ones and our vulnerable populations,” EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said in a statement. “There’s no time to lose.”
Across Europe, authorities are trying to find a balance between reassurance and complacency. In Germany, the Robert Koch Institute, the federal organization responsible for tracking the virus, said “there is no evidence” that the BA.5 iteration of the virus is more deadly, but the country’s health minister country, Karl Lauterbach, shared tweets posted by a hospital doctor from the German city of Darmstadt saying that his clinic’s COVID ward was fully occupied with severely symptomatic patients.
The German vaccine board has yet to update its advice on a fourth vaccine, which recommends a second booster only for people aged over 70 and patients at risk.
In France, where an average of 83,000 cases a day were reported last week, around a third more than a month ago, Health Minister Francois Braun avoided further restrictions. He told RTL radio last week that “we decided to bet on the responsibility of the French” as he recommended the wearing of masks in crowded places and encouraged a second booster dose of vaccine for the most vulnerable people. .
He seemed confident that France, where nearly 80% of people are fully vaccinated, and its hospitals, could weather the new wave of infections and focused more on collecting data to track the virus. “Minimal but necessary measures” were the right approach, Braun recently told the French parliament’s law commission. Last week, a proposal to give the government continued power to require proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test when entering France failed to pass parliament.
In Spain, where the vaccination rate is over 85% and more than half of the eligible population has received a booster, the pandemic has appeared to be an afterthought as Spaniards have returned to their usual beach holidays and eagerly welcomed tourists. Officials, encouraged by the low occupancy of intensive care units, said it would be enough to monitor the situation.
Not everyone was satisfied.
“We have forgotten practically everything,” said Rafael Vilasanjuan, director of policy and global development at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, a research body.
But other parts of Europe were even more passive. In the Czech Republic, where there are no restrictions, including in hospitals, the virus is rampant and authorities are openly predicting an increase in cases.
In Italy, the first Western country to face the full force of the virus, reports of new cases have steadily increased since mid-June, although they have fallen in the past week. The average daily number of deaths has more than doubled over the past month, but hospitals have not been overwhelmed. Health Minister Roberto Speranza has announced that the country will follow the European regulator’s recommendation to offer a second COVID-19 booster shot to all people over the age of 60 – not just people over the age of 60. 80 years and vulnerable patients.
“In the current situation, you must implement an integrated policy to protect vulnerable people who, despite vaccination, are still at risk of developing a serious and serious disease,” said Crisanti, the former consultant to the Italian leaders on the virus. . , who lamented what he said was a still huge number of deaths each day from infectious disease.
He predicted that over time, as vulnerable elderly people died, deaths from the virus would decrease and the virus would become more and more endemic. He said the immune system of people aged 70 to 90 in the future would have memories and protection against the virus.
At this point, the tattered signs of Europe’s fight against COVID would truly belong in another era. Meanwhile, however, another woman in the Roman bookshop, this one wearing an N95 mask, worried that the stickers under her feet might become relevant again.
“Reality”, she said, “goes faster than laws”.