The coronavirus first smashed into Europe with a wave of infections that nearly broke its hospitals — exhausting, infecting and killing doctors and nurses. Lockdowns created some space in intensive care wards over the summer. But the reprieve was short-lived.
Since the fall, the continent has watched with horror, and paralysis, as another wave struck with nearly equal force — and in some places far more. Hospital corridors were crammed again, respirators overloaded. As death rates spiked, governments imposed restrictions, hoping to salvage their economies while keeping the virus at bay.
It hasn’t worked out that way. By December, the graphs charting the pandemic’s course looked less like progress than a scary roller coaster. The one constant through it all has been the strain on frontline workers in hospitals.
It has not helped them that European leaders are still struggling to get a handle on a pandemic that has eluded all their policy prescriptions. If any further reminder were needed, President Emmanuel Macron of France tested positive last week.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has closed much of the country again. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy has imposed tough new restrictions over the holidays. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, facing a new and fast-spreading variant of the virus, has sealed off London and much of southeastern England. The king of Sweden said the country’s hands-off approach had “failed.”
Now, with the holidays and vaccines just starting to arrive, hopeful giddiness is mixing with reckless behavior and popular fatigue, raising fears that the new year will usher in yet another bump in infections.
The dread is pervasive. The already considerable burdens on health care workers have gotten worse in 30 countries across the continent in recent weeks, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, an E.U. agency.
Occupancy and admissions to hospitals and intensive care units were up over the previous week in at least a dozen countries, the agency said in a report on Thursday.