Brussels – The story of COVID-19 has been pretty bleak, from the scale of the novel coronavirus’s death toll to the pain of draconian lockdowns imposed by, in many cases, unprepared and under-resourced governments.
But several weeks after the tentative lifting of tough stay-at-home restrictions in several major European countries, there are reasons to be optimistic about the risk of a second wave of cases — with a dose of appropriate caution.
In France, the government is forging ahead with the reopening of bars, restaurants, museums, parks and cross-country travel after the first phase of "deconfinement” went much better than expected. The daily increase in cases here averaged around 0.5 percent last week, according to Bloomberg data, and the virus’s basic reproduction rate is below 1, according to the French government and other estimates based on hospitalizations.
Elsewhere, Italy, Germany and Spain have also avoided serious flare-ups in cases and deaths as restrictions are eased. It’s similar in Austria and Denmark, which lifted lockdowns back in April. Weekly confirmed cases show the continuation of a declining trend. That’s despite people going out and about once again, albeit with face masks and hand gel, and a stay on big-crowd events for now.
Retail and recreational footfall in these countries, which was near zero during the lockdown, has recovered to around 50 percent below the pre-crisis baseline, according to Google data. In parks and public spaces, it’s back to normal. Consumers are even booking flights again. Visions of a radically new society emerging from the rubble of COVID-19 may have to be rethought.
There’s no consensus yet on why things are going relatively well. Some experts say the virus itself may have changed, possibly weakened by the summer heat or mutating into a more benign form. Society has changed, too. More social distancing, more hand-washing and more tools such as testing and contact tracing are proving their worth.
Whatever the reason, doctors are increasingly voicing relief and optimism. "Of course, we shouldn’t lower our guard. … But right now, it’s as if the epidemic was behind me,” French medical professor Frederic Adnet said last week. On Friday, Christian Drosten, a virologist at the Charite University Hospital in Berlin, told Der Spiegel he was confident the outbreak could be kept under control without another lockdown: "There is theoretically a possibility that we can forego a second wave.”
None of this means that the virus has disappeared. Areas such as Latin America are still being hit hard. The World Health Organization says the strength of the virus in the developing world indicates we are globally still in the first wave, rather than past it.
Nor does it make sense for all countries to lift restrictions to the same extent. Scientists in the United Kingdom, where daily case growth has been higher than in neighboring countries, have expressed concern about curbs being eased too fast. It’s pretty unlikely we are anywhere near herd immunity, and if the virus is a seasonal one, a return in the winter months can’t be ruled out.
Still, countries in Europe are proving they can return to some semblance of normal life while containing the virus’s spread, and this is a very positive development. We’re far better prepared to contain "super-spreader” events than at the beginning of the epidemic, when the virus thrived below the surface. Earlier this month, more than 100 infections were traced to a service in a German church, which closed its doors as a result.
And economic activity is recovering, as captured by the quite rational rally in financial markets. Bank of America analysts expect key indicators to point to an expanding euro-zone economy by September at the latest.
If infections from the novel coronavirus or another one like it do spike again, we will have had more time to keep researching existing drugs for possible treatments, as well as working on the more distant goal of a vaccine. The extra resources being poured into testing, medical research and hospitals should help us avoid the worst of both worlds — high excess deaths and blanket, economy-killing lockdown measures — even if cases climb.
The scenario of this virus simply disappearing, perhaps in the way the 2003 SARS disease did, remains a dream. Pandemics usually end when there aren’t enough people left to infect, or when human intervention — through vaccines, or brute-force measures such as isolation or quarantine — scores a decisive victory. We’re not there yet. But the feeling of getting closer is palpable, and worth relishing.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.