Europe between rock and hard place as it tries to reopen after Easter
Countries in Europe are finding themselves caught between a rock and a hard place as they plan to reopen after the Easter holidays.
While many countries enforced stricter rules over Easter to prevent a surge in COVID-19 infections during the celebrations, a prevailing fatigue among the general public about months of restrictions has made it increasingly difficult for compliance, especially as the weather warms up.
In Brussels, the capital of Belgium, some 2,000 party-goers turned up on Thursday in the Bois de la Cambre, one of the city's biggest public parks, after a fake April Fool's Day festival event was advertised on social media. Police tried to disperse the crowds with water cannons and clashed with the revelers attending the unauthorized event despite COVID-19 restrictions.
Belgium, with a population of about 11 million, has recorded some 888,000 COVID-19 cases and over 23,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Latest statistics from the health authorities showed that the COVID-19 incidence of the last 14 days was 561.6 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.
Right now schools, cafes and restaurants are closed, a night-time curfew is in place and non-essential trips in and out of Belgium are prohibited. "Outdoor bubbles" are reduced to four people, not counting children under the age of 12.
Ironically, a Brussels court ruled on Wednesday that the Belgian state must lift "all coronavirus measures" within 30 days, as there is insufficient legal basis for them. The State is given 30 days to provide a sound legal basis, or face a penalty of 5,000 euros per day when the period expires, the Brussels Times reported.
In the UK, where close to half of its 67 million population have been given the first jab of a COVID-19 vaccine, with steadily falling numbers of new cases and deaths, the rallies on Saturday across the country against the government's new crime bill have become a cause for concern over rising infections thereafter.
"While we welcome the limited relaxation of rules, we don't want to become complacent ... After a long and difficult few months, let's not undo all of that hard work now," Deputy Assistant Commissioner Jane Connors, who is leading the Metropolitan Police's strategic response to COVID-19, said in a statement.
DOUBTS ABOUT ASTRAZENECA VACCINE
But nothing is more frustrating than renewed reports on blood clot cases among AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine recipients, especially when Europe is scrambling to ramp up its vaccination campaign, albeit with some delay.
Britain's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said on Thursday it had received 30 reports of blood clots out of a total of 18.1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine given by March 24. The cases include 22 reports of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) and eight reports of other thrombosis events with low platelets.
Seven people have died from unusual blood clots after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine in Britain, the BBC reported on Saturday, quoting the country's medicines regulator.
On the basis of its ongoing review into these reports, the MHRA said the benefits of the vaccines against COVID-19 continue to outweigh any risks and people should continue to get their vaccine when invited to do so.
The Netherlands also temporarily halted the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under the age of 60 after the Lareb side effects center said Friday that five reports had been received concerning women aged 25-65 who developed thrombosis in combination with a reduced platelet count, out of some 400,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine administered.
One of these five women died after developing an extensive pulmonary embolism within ten days of the vaccination.
On Tuesday evening, Germany decided to stop inoculating people under 60 with the AstraZeneca vaccine due to reports of 31 cases of cerebral vein thrombosis in connection with immunization.
European Medicines Agency, the drug regulator of the European Union (EU), said that based on currently available data, its safety committee PRAC is expected to issue an updated recommendation next week about the AstraZeneca vaccine.
"GREEN PASS" AND REOPENING
The third wave of the pandemic in Europe is alarmingly visible in many countries. In France, one of the worst-hit countries in the region, a total of 46,677 COVID-19 cases were reported on Friday. Thursday and Wednesday even witnessed over 50,000 daily cases. Since March, daily cases have spiraled, with an average of about 30,000.
"The third wave is here, and it's hitting us hard. ... The epidemic spreads quickly and everywhere. This acceleration is due to the virus variant detected in Britain by the end of last year," said Prime Minister Jean Castex after the country's third national lockdown announced.
Germany registered 24,300 new cases on Thursday, some 1,600 more than one week ago, according to the Robert Koch Institute, the federal government agency for disease control and prevention. Calling it a "really difficult phase of the pandemic," Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "With our behavior, we can again slow down, stop and then reverse the strong growth in the number of infections."
Indeed, the anxiety about a return to normalcy could be felt everywhere. Austria declared last week it would be a pioneer in the EU in introducing a digital "green pass" to enable safe travel during the pandemic.
Health Minister Rudolf Anschober confirmed to journalists that two-thirds of Austrians should have received at least the first COVID-19 vaccine shot by the beginning of July.
The "green pass" would cover test results and the status of recovery from COVID-19 by the end of April, and the data from the electronic vaccination certificate should then be added in June, he said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said that the government is considering COVID-19 vaccine certification but suggested it might only be implemented once all adults in Britain have been offered a vaccine by the end of July.
The European Commission proposed last month a Digital Green Certificate covering COVID-19 vaccination, testing and recovery, in a bid to reopen the bloc "in a safe, sustainable and predictable way."
Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton, who is now responsible for the bloc's new vaccine production task force, revealed to RTL radio last Sunday that the certificate will be issued to EU citizens somewhere in mid-June ideally.