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'On brink of disaster': shaken Europe overtakes U.S. in virus surge

Medical workers take care of a patient infected with Covid-19 at the intensive care unit of the Infanta Sofia University hospital amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in San Sebastian de los Reyes, outside Madrid. Photo by REUTERS/Sergio Perez

By Jan Lopatka and Marine Strauss

European nations are closing schools, cancelling operations and enlisting legions of student medics as overwhelmed authorities face the nightmare scenario of a Covid-19 resurgence at the onset of winter.

With new cases hitting about 100,000 a day, Europe has by a wide margin overtaken the United States, where more than 51,000 Covid-19 infections are reported on average every day.

Most European governments eased lockdowns over the summer to start reviving economies already battered by the pandemic's first wave.

But the return of normal activity - from packed restaurants to new university terms - fuelled a sharp spike in cases all over the continent.

Bars and pubs were among the first to shut or face earlier closing in the new lockdowns, but now the surging infection rates are also testing governments' resolve to keep schools and non-Covid medical care going.

Even Pope Francis was subject to new coronavirus rules, staying at a safe distance from well-wishers at his weekly audience on Wednesday.

In Lisbon, football fans were unsurprised after Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive, saying it simply showed everyone was at risk of getting infected - and famous athletes were no exception.

The Czech Republic, with Europe's worst rate per capita, has shifted schools to distance learning and plans to call up thousands of medical students. Hospitals are cutting non-urgent medical procedures to free up beds.

"Sometimes we are at the edge of crying," said Lenka Krejcova, a head nurse at Slany hospital near Prague, as builders hurried to turn a general ward into a Covid-19 department.

Poland is ramping up training for nurses and considering creating military field hospitals, Moscow is to move many students to online learning, and Northern Ireland is closing schools for two weeks and restaurants for four.

"I don't have any good information. We are on the brink of disaster," said immunologist Pawel Grzesiowski in Poland, which reported a record 6,526 infections and 116 deaths on Wednesday.

Efforts to develop a vaccine hit snags in some areas, with Johnson & Johnson pausing its trial after an unexplained illness in a study participant. AstraZeneca's U.S. trial has remained on hold for more than a month.

Russia, which recorded a record daily increase in cases, has meanwhile granted regulatory approval to a second vaccine.


Major European economies such as Germany, England and France have so far resisted pressure to close schools, but in Germany, politicians are debating whether to extend the Christmas-New Year school break to reduce contagion.

The Netherlands returned to partial lockdown, closing bars and restaurants, but kept schools open.

European infections have been running at an average of almost 100,000 a day - about a third of the global total - forcing governments to tighten restrictions while attempting to avoid destroying livelihoods.

The United Kingdom, France, Russia and Spain accounted for more than half of Europe's new cases in the week to October 11, according to the World Health Organization.

In the United States, 22 states have so far in October set records for increases in new cases. But deaths are trending downward and have averaged 700 a day over the last week.


French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to unveil further restrictions, with media reporting that city curfews are under consideration.

"Curfew ... this is a word we haven’t heard in a long time," shrugged pensioner Francis Boutry at a Paris market, recalling the 1954-62 Algerian war.

"What can we do? We have to stop this virus somehow."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces opposition calls for another national lockdown in England, but has so far resisted. Hospital admissions, however, are climbing and field hospitals constructed in the spring are once more being readied.

In Spain, authorities in Catalonia ordered bars and restaurants to close for 15 days and limited the numbers of people allowed in shops.

In Belgium, with Europe's second worst infection rate per capita, hospitals must now reserve a quarter of their beds for COVID-19 patients.

"We can't see the end of the tunnel today," Renaud Mazy, managing director of the University Clinics of Saint-Luc in Brussels, told La Premiere radio.

In Australia, one of the most successful countries to combat the virus, clusters have emerged in the two most populous states, prompting New South Wales to delay easing some restrictions.

And new curbs have been imposed in Malaysia, where the royal palace postponed all meetings for two weeks.

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