Europe Is Learning to Live With the Coronavirus, Even as Cases Rise

Europe Is Learning to Live With the Coronavirus, Even as Cases Rise

PARIS — In the early days of the pandemic, President Emmanuel Macron exhorted the French to wage “war” against the coronavirus. Today, his message is to “learn how to live with the virus.’’

From full-fledged conflict to cold war containment, France and much of the rest of Europe have opted for coexistence as infections keep rising, summer recedes into a risk-filled autumn and the possibility of a second wave haunts the continent.

Having abandoned hopes of eradicating the virus or developing a vaccine within weeks, Europeans have largely gone back to work and school, leading lives as normally as possible amid an enduring pandemic that has already killed nearly 215,000 in Europe.

The approach contrasts sharply to the United States, where restrictions to protect against the virus have been politically divisive and where many regions have pushed ahead with reopening schools, shops and restaurants without having baseline protocols in place. The result has been nearly as many deaths as in Europe, though among a far smaller population.

Europeans, for the most part, are putting to use the hard-won lessons from the pandemic’s initial phase: the need to wear masks and practice social distancing, the importance of testing and tracing, the critical advantages of reacting nimbly and locally. All of those measures, tightened or loosened as needed, are intended to prevent the kind of national lockdowns that paralyzed the continent and crippled economies early this year.

“It’s not possible to stop the virus,” said Emmanuel André, a leading virologist in Belgium and former spokesman for the government’s Covid-19 task force. “It’s about maintaining equilibrium. And we only have a few tools available to do that.”

He added, “People are tired. They don’t want to go to war anymore.”

Martial language has given way to more measured assurances.

“We are in a living-with-the-virus phase,” said Roberto Speranza, the health minister of Italy, the first country in Europe to impose a national lockdown. In an interview with La Stampa newspaper, Mr. Speranza said that though a “zero infection rate does not exist,” Italy was now far better equipped to handle a surge in infections.

Still, risks remain.

New infections have soared in recent weeks, especially in France and in Spain. France recorded more than 10,000 cases on a single day last week. The jump is not surprising since the overall number of tests being performed — now about 1 million a week — has increased steadily and is now more than 10 times what it was in the spring.

The death rate of about 30 people a day is a small fraction of what it was at its peak when hundreds and sometimes more than 1,000 died every day in France. That is because those infected now tend to be younger and health officials have learned how to treat Covid-19 better, said William Dab, an epidemiologist and a French former national health director.

“The virus is still circulating freely, we’re controlling poorly the chain of infections, and inevitably high-risk people — the elderly, the obese, the diabetic — will end up being affected,” Mr. Dab said.

In Germany, too, young people are overrepresented among the rising cases of infections.

While the German health authorities are testing over a million people a week, a debate has started over the relevance of infection rates in providing a snapshot of the pandemic.

At the beginning of September, only 5 percent of confirmed cases had to go to hospital for treatment, according to data from the country’s health authority. During the height of the pandemic in April, as many as 22 percent of those infected ended up in hospital care.

Hendrik Streeck, head of virology at a research hospital in the German city of Bonn, cautioned that the pandemic should not be judged merely by infection numbers, but instead by deaths and hospitalizations.

“We’ve have reached a phase where the number of infections alone is no longer as meaningful,” Mr. Streeck said.

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