Europeans celebrate Easter in lockdown amid new wave of COVID-19 infections
by Chen Jing
A second Easter under the COVID-19 pandemic has arrived. Instead of celebrating it at home, Shousha, a young Finnish shop owner who runs a dessert shop with a friend in downtown Helsinki, decided to stay open for business, awaiting customers.
Battling against a new wave of COVID-19 infections fueled by more transmissible variants, European countries are facing the unprecedented challenge of balancing disease control and public life with economic reopening.
Easter arrived early this year compared to last, yet the pandemic situation in Europe has hardly improved. Several countries cannot afford to drop their guard.
A total of 27 countries in the region were in partial or full nationwide lockdown, with 21 of them imposing nighttime curfews, the World Health Organization's European Region Office said in a press release on Wednesday.
In France, one of the worst-hit countries in the region, a total of 46,677 COVID-19 cases were reported on Friday. In the same week, more than 50,000 people were also diagnosed with the pandemic for two consecutive days. Since March, daily COVID-19 cases have spiraled, with an average of about 30,000 cases.
France has taken "reinforced braking measures" to contain the virus resurgence. Starting from Friday midnight, the country's 67 million inhabitants are asked to stay home, schools are shut down for three weeks and teleworking is prioritized, with inter-regional travel prohibited for at least one month.
The health care system in Poland is approaching capacity. The Eastern European country implemented partial national lockdown measures late last month, closing cinemas, theaters, museums and hotels for non-business guests.
Poland, a country that widely observes Easter, has issued advisories to limit celebrations to direct family members.
Easter in Latvia is expected to be quiet. For the second year in a row, the annual festivity cannot be celebrated with friends or extended family because of the pandemic.
Trying to avoid using such unpleasant terms as "lockdown" or "curfew," the Latvian government came up with a so-called home-sitting policy, in which people are instructed to stay home whenever possible, work from home and spend holidays with immediate household members to keep the virus at bay.
"Our business is deeply affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Now it's only thirty percent (of the pre-pandemic level)," Shousha said, adding that his landlord agreed to waive the monthly rent and only charge commissions.
However, not everyone is as lucky. According to a recent survey by Finnish media, youth unemployment in Helsinki increased by around 100 percent from that of 2020, partly due to a lack of job opportunities in the service industry.
With its pleasant temperature, Spain is traditionally one of the most popular travel destinations in Europe in April. However, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the turnover of hoteliers of the Valencian Community, a prominent Mediterranean coastal region, was estimated to drop over 70 percent during the Easter holidays this year compared to that of 2019, local media reported.
Spain, where tourism represents about 11 percent of GDP and provides 12 percent of jobs, suffered a fall of 77.3 percent in the number of foreign tourists in 2020.
Meanwhile, the French government was evaluating the consequences of a third confinement.
The country's Ministry of Economy said that aid to businesses would total 11 billion euros (about 13 billion U.S. dollars) per month, up from 7.2 billion euros per month in mid-March, when part of the country was put under restrictions.
The sharp increase was primarily due to the extension of the closure of non-essential businesses across the country. The number of closed shops was estimated to increase from 90,000 to 150,000.
The risk of another wave of infections is feared to be imminent after Easter with the continued spread of virus variants and increased mobility.
Travel is still permitted across Slovenia to visit family.
Poland is worried about increased travel given that a number of seniors have already been vaccinated and others will soon receive their jabs.
Ireland learned its lesson from last Christmas, when degraded epidemic prevention measures caused a third wave of infections. The government was forced to resume the highest level of precautions from Christmas Eve until now.
Under the current restrictions, which were supposed to expire on Easter Monday, Ireland has prohibited traveling more than 5 km away from home unless for a special reason, and all non-essential retail outlets and most indoor public facilities are closed.
The Swedish government has also ruled out the possibility of lifting the current COVID-19 restrictions as early as planned, as infection numbers remain high and the virus continues to spread in many parts of the country.
Renewed attention has been given to speeding up vaccination programs. With production and delivery across the continent still facing challenges, some European countries have turned their attention East.
Health authorities in Hungary have granted permission for the use of a COVID-19 vaccine made by the China National Pharmaceutical Group Co., Ltd.
Serbia, which has among the highest rates of inoculations in Europe, also signed a contract with the group to purchase more of its vaccines.
Vaccines present the best way out of this pandemic, said Hans Henri P. Kluge, the WHO's regional director for Europe.
The region's situation is worrying, he noted, saying countries must ramp up manufacturing, reduce barriers to administering vaccines, and use every single vial currently in stock.
Shousha remains optimistic. He plans on renovating the store after the Easter holidays, hoping the pandemic situation would soon improve. (1 euro = 1.18 U.S. dollars) Enditem
(Liu Fang in Paris, Li Deping in Riga, Zhang Zhang and Chen Xu in Warsaw, Fu Yiming and Patrick Ekstrand in Stockholm, Peng Lijun in Ljubljana, Zhang Qi in Dublin, Lin Jing in Copenhagen, Meng Dingbo in Madrid, and Shi Zhongyu in Belgrade also contributed to the story.)