International 22/10/2021

Covid puts unvaccinated Europe on the ropes

First restrictions return in the East, in countries with low immunisation rates

4 min
A worker of the Ministry of Emergencies disinfecting the Leningradsky station in Moscow

LondonBeyond the the worrying situation in the UK, continental Europe is starting to feel the coronavirus again. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), last week there was an overall increase of 7% of cases. However, in some of the countries, and in relation to the previous fourteen days, the increases have exceeded one hundred percent. This is the case, for example, in Latvia, Poland, Hungary and Georgia. And in others, such as Romania, with only a 38% increase, the number of people admitted to hospital already exceeds 20,000 - 1,800 in ICUs - and visits and treatment for other diseases have begun to be suspended.

The low vaccination rates in relation to the average of the European Union member states (74%) outline a complicated autumn and a landing in an uncertain winter in Eastern Europe, where countries like Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania do not reach an immunised population of 30%. Therefore, the threat of the reintroduction of restrictions that many already considered a sad memory is once again very present in this last quarter of the year 2021.

In addition to the requests for the vaccination passport to enter restaurants in countries like France and Italy, or other measures to try to ensure health security, much harsher freedom constraints have been established in the East. This is the case in Latvia, where a new month-long curfew - starting at 8 p.m. and lasting until 5 a.m. - has been in effect since Thursday, and where schools and non-essential shops have been closed for the same period of time.

Latvia still does not have 50% of its population immunised. Last week 10,682 doses were administered daily, a figure that suggests that it will not be until the end of November when 10% more residents will have been protected, a rate that is totally insufficient. Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņše said on Monday that "the health system is in danger, the only way out of this crisis is to get vaccinated".

Mistrust in governments

To justify the differences in immunisation between Western and Eastern Europe, some political scientists and public health specialists have pointed out that in the countries of former communist regimes citizens might be especially skeptical after decades of governments that eroded trust in institutions. Moreover, it should also be borne in mind that these same governments often left their health systems at rock bottom and, with the addition of the 2008 economic crisis, are now unable to respond effectively to the emergency. The Republic of Ireland, the most extreme favourable case, has 92% of its population vaccinated within the EU. Bulgaria, also a 27 member, has only 18.9%

Until 8 October, Bulgaria had the highest mortality rate on the continent, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. On that date, however, Romania surpassed that figure and now leads the tragic ranking, with 225.83 deaths per million inhabitants. Only 29% of Romanians have been vaccinated.

Russia's problem

Another country that will go into partial hibernation in a few days is Russia. The president, Vladimir Putin, announced a week of paid vacation for all workers between October 30 and November 7 to encourage people to stay at home. In addition, Moscow will reintroduce lockdown measures, as announced on Thursday by the mayor, Serguei Sobianin: only supermarkets and pharmacies will be able to open. Schools and kindergartens will also be closed, while bars and restaurants can only serve takeaway or home-delivered food. This is the first partial lockdown to take place in and around the Russian capital since the summer of 2020. The more than 1,000 deaths on 21 October and the fact that the population is not vaccinated (just under 35% of the population has done so) are behind the new restrictions.

The situation is not new. Sputnik V, Putin's vaccine, which was the first to be approved worldwide, on 11 August 2020, arouses much suspicion among citizens - although its use has been approved in more than 70 countries, but crucially not in the European Union - and covid has left a trail of victims between mid-May and the end of August this 2021 of more than a thousand a day, with peaks of 1,500. From the second week of September it dropped by half and now it has risen again.

In any case, there is not much coherence when it comes to applying measures. For example, in Belarus, the government of the authoritarian Aleksandr Lukashenko has annulled the decree he issued thirteen days ago forcing the population to wear face masks indoors. It has also suspended the decree requiring taxi drivers and transport workers to be vaccinated on 1 November. At this point, only 22.3% of the population has received the double injection, in this case of Sputnik V.

The arrival of winter

The director of the World Health Organization for Europe said on Thursday that the new increases have coincided with the lifting of "most of the restrictions" on the continent over the summer. "We are now seeing that they coincide with the onset of the winter period, when people move indoors as the cold weather sets in. The question remains as to whether or not we will have the same experience as last year, with health systems under pressure". Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia, Latvia and Romania already know what it's like. And the common denominator among all these cases is low vaccination figures.

Now, the million-dollar question is whether this impact will also be felt in the West. Although the situation is very different, there is no guarantee at the moment that the cold from the east will not arrive, along with covid. The proof of this is the data released on Friday in Germany: the number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants over the last seven days has risen to 95.1, compared to 68.7 the previous week. In absolute numbers, this translates into a total of 19,572 cases, 8,054 more than on 15 October. And in Germany, vaccination coverage stands at 66.4% of the population.

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