The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that Europe remains “in the grip” of the coronavirus pandemic and that the continent’s death toll could exceed 2.2 million this winter if current trends continue.
Another 700,000 Europeans could die by March 1, the WHO said on Tuesday, in addition to the 1.5 million who have already died from the virus.
It expects “high or extreme stress in intensive care units (ICUs) in 49 out of 53 countries between now and March 1, 2022”.
Europe’s return as the epicenter of the pandemic is to blame for sluggish vaccine intake in some countries, the highly contagious Delta variant, colder weather that is moving people indoors again and the easing of restrictions.
The boom has meant that Austria has returned to lockout this week, while Germany and the Netherlands are ready to announce new restrictions.
In the European Union, 67.7 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
But rates vary widely between countries, with low levels in many eastern countries. Only 24.2 percent of Bulgarians are fully vaccinated, compared to 86.7 percent in Portugal.
According to WHO data, COVID-related deaths in its European region of 53 countries increased to almost 4,200 per day last week, doubling from 2,100 deaths per day at the end of September.
Evidence is growing that vaccine-induced protection against infection and mild diseases is declining.
Several countries, including Greece, France and Germany, are moving in the direction of requiring a third shot for someone to be considered fully vaccinated.
Austria, meanwhile, closed shops, restaurants and festive markets on Monday, the most drastic restrictions seen in Western Europe for months.
Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany was not doing enough to combat its “highly dramatic” fourth wave of the pandemic.
With intensive care beds filling up rapidly and the weekly incidence peaking at 399.8 new infections per 100,000 people, Germany’s worst-hit regions have ordered new shutdowns, including the closure of Christmas markets.
Dominic Kane of Al Jazeera, who reported from Berlin, said there are two milestones on people’s minds in Germany.
“The first one has already been exceeded,” he said. “More than five million cases in this country since the pandemic started. The second one, which may be psychologically much more important, is likely to happen within the next two days: 100,000 people die in this country from coronavirus. ”
The number of COVID deaths in the country currently stands at just under 99,000, but with 300 people dying from COVID every day, Kane said.
‘Challenging winter ahead’
The WHO said that a large number of people not vaccinated, as well as “reduced vaccine-induced protection”, was one of the factors driving high transmission in Europe, together with the dominance of the Delta variant and the relaxation of hygiene measures.
The regional director for WHO Europe, Hans Kluge, said Europe and Central Asia “are facing a challenging winter”.
He called for a “vaccine plus” approach, consisting of a combination of vaccinations, social distance, the use of face masks and hand washing.
The WHO said face masks reduced COVID incidence by 53 per cent according to a recent study, and “more than 160,000 deaths can be prevented (by 1 March) if a universal mask coverage of 95 per cent is achieved”.
But the prospect of a winter under renewed constraints has caused unrest in several countries.
Belgium, the Netherlands and France’s Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique continued to struggle on Tuesday against violent protests against new anti-COVID measures.
Dutch police have arrested at least 21 people during a fourth night of clashes, which Prime Minister Mark Rutte described as “pure violence” by “idiots”.
His Belgian counterpart, Alexander De Croo, called the violence in a 35,000-strong protest in Brussels “absolutely unacceptable”.