Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Europe thinks it is past the peak of the first wave of the coronavirus

Shoppers wait to enter a supermarket in London. (Frank Augstein/AP)

LONDON — All across Europe, the numbers are coming down.

In Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Britain, public health officials — their faces often drained by exhaustion — are now expressing cautious optimism that the first wave of Europe’s devastating pandemic is ending.

From Ireland to Greece, officials are seeing hopeful signs that coronavirus infections are peaking and have begun to plateau or recede, pointing to intensive care beds that are slowly opening up and a daily reduction in the number of new hospitalizations.

In Paris, Milan and Madrid, hospitals and staff that were stressed to their limits just a few weeks ago, as thousands of coughing, fevered, breathless patients surged through their doors, are now reporting empty beds in their ICUs. There are ventilators to go around.

The Severo Ochoa Hospital in Madrid made international news with images last month of sick patients sleeping on the floor, waiting to be seen by a doctor. Now there are a few spare beds in Spain.

In London and elsewhere, governments that rushed to erect, almost overnight, the kinds of field hospitals deployed for war, famine or natural disaster, have found they are not needed, at least not now.

Europe’s esteemed, pricey, generous health-care systems didn’t have to ration care.

Europe held. But it’s not yet time to completely let up, officials caution.

Hans Kluge, World Health Organization director for Europe, said “the storm cloud” of the pandemic “still hangs heavily over the European region.”

The continent is still seeing shocking numbers of fatalities. Members of the European Union and Britain account for almost two-thirds of the 150,000 deaths recorded worldwide.

But infectious disease experts say Europe’s effort to slow the pandemic — instituting quarantines across the continent more widespread and draconian than those seen during the plague in the Middle Ages — has worked.

Just a month ago, the world was stunned to see photographs of Italian military trucks lining up outside the public hospital in the pretty town of Bergamo, ready to haul bodies to crematoriums.

In an Italian city, obituaries fill the newspaper, but survivors mourn alone

And yet, even in the worst hit regions of northern Italy, where the virus first exploded in February in the little villages of Lombardy — where panicked doctors on shaky videos later expressed fears they would soon have to decide who lived and who died — even there, the numbers of new infections are falling.

“The peak has already arrived, and we are recovering,” said Pier Luigi Lopalco, an epidemiologist at the University of Pisa, who advises Italy’s Puglia region on its response. “Strictly speaking, from a health care point of view, it is much easier now.”

As the lockdowns start to loosen, Europe walks a tightrope, a precarious balancing act, with any misstep potentially deadly.

Europe starts to walk the ‘tightrope’ out of coronavirus lockdown

Each country in Europe is taking its own baby steps. Denmark reopened elementary schools this week; Germany will do so in early May. Austria is allowing gardening stores to sell flowers again. The Italians can return to book stores. Spanish officials promise a “de-escalation phase” and want construction projects to resume and some factories to open with appropriate social distancing.

But. There is always a but with this virus.

“But it is thin ice,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week, of these first tentative steps toward normalcy. “It is really a situation where caution is the order of the day, and not overconfidence.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said April 15 that caution is needed to fight the coronavirus outbreak as the situation in the country is still fragile. (Video: Reuters)

“There is light at the end of the tunnel. But we are now at both a delicate and a dangerous stage in this pandemic,” Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told the country when he announced that its lockdown would continue for another three weeks at least.

“I don’t think the end is necessarily so close or that we are in a continual, linear decline. It may be more like a zigzag, up and down,” said Angela Hernandez Puente, vice-secretary general of Madrid’s Doctors Union.

“We’ve always seen light at the end of the tunnel, but the question is: At what cost?” she said. “How much suffering in terms of the number of lives and the efforts on the part of health professionals?”

After the virus emerged in China and began to spread, many Europeans hoped the casualties would be lower here — in hospitals that have the best of everything.

But mortality rates soared in much of Europe and have been disturbingly high in Britain, Spain and Italy. Nursing homes have been especially hard hit.

In Italy, there is broad consensus that the emergency phase is starting to relent after a two-month period in which more than 20,000 people died. The number of patients in intensive care has fallen 25 percent from the peak two weeks ago, and hospitals say the burden has eased.

Italy slowed the spread of the virus by enforcing perhaps the most rigid lockdown among Western democracies.

But the strict measures in Italy were necessary because the virus had raged for so long without any restrictions, and the country is still paying the price. Italy is still reporting as many as 600 deaths per day. More than 100 doctors in Italy have died. The country’s economy is forecast to shrink nine percent this year, and the political pressure to reopen — to keep up with countries hit less hard by the virus — puts it in danger of a second and third wave.

In France, authorities cautiously announced a beginning of the end of peak infections. Jérôme Salomon, France’s deputy health minister, said this week that for the first time since the pandemic began, the number of covid-19 patients admitted to French hospitals decreased.

Martin Hirsch, the director of the Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, the largest public hospital system in Europe, announced that in the Paris region, the hardest hit by the coronavirus, the total number of cases had stabilized for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

“We are now in what we’ve called the ‘high plateau,’ ” Hirsch said, “which is to say a stabilization at a very high level, and always with an increase in the number of cases in our geriatric units, which face difficult situations. But we can share several encouraging signs.”

As Spain finished its first month of confinement this week, Fernando Simon, who heads the Emergency Health Response for the Health Ministry, said quickly adopting social distancing and personal hygiene measures following the WHO’s declaration of the pandemic brought down the spread of covid-19.

“We changed our behavior and that is what affected the infection rates,” Simon said.

The extensive testing and contact tracing used by German health authorities has been heralded as an example of how to contain the virus. Germany has recorded less than 4,000 deaths among a population of 83 million.

That compares to almost 14,000 deaths in the United Kingdom’s 67 million people and 18,000 in France’s similarly sized population.

In recent weeks, German health authorities have said that the rate of new infections has tapered off.

“We have achieved something,” Merkel said in a news conference as she announced that small shops would open after the weekend, with schools gradually opening their doors next month.

“Namely, that our doctors, our nursing staff and all those involved in medical hospital work, they were not overwhelmed,” the German leader said.

Harlan reported from Rome, McAuley from Paris, Morris from Berlin, Birnbaum from Brussels. Pamela Rolfe in Madrid, Luisa Beck in Berlin and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news