The European country with the highest number of COVID-19-related deaths is beginning to lift its lockdown.
After seven, long and difficult weeks, Italy finally has a path forward. From next week, people will be allowed to visit their relatives in small groups.
Parks, factories and building sites will reopen.
Other countries, of course, are already in the process. From Denmark to Austria and the Czech Republic, Europeans are getting back to a sense of normality – even if it is a new kind of normal. But it’s happening in phases, one week at a time.
Many fear what the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked about upon returning to work on Monday: a second wave. If the UK eases restrictions too quickly it would be “to throw away all the effort and sacrifice”. And he is right to be concerned. Throughout history, epidemics have battered us in waves.
The first recorded plague outbreak in Athens, in the 5th century BC, hit in 430BC, 429BC and 427BC to 426BC, bringing misery and death with it, year after year. The same was true of the Black Death in 14th century Europe and smallpox in the 18th century. And also, notably, the so-called Spanish Flu a century ago, which hit lots of Europe in the spring of 1918, before re-emerging later that same year and again in 1919.
Worryingly, it was that second wave in the autumn and winter of 1918 that proved more deadly in some places.
Most scientists in Europe think there will be a second wave of the novel coronavirus, most likely again in the latter half of this year. There is some evidence that the warmer summer could help dampen the spread of the virus, not least of all because people will spend more time outdoors. But if it does spike again later this year, combined with the seasonal winter flu, it could prove to be a very dangerous cocktail.
It’s why governments are easing lockdowns and suggesting that social distancing will have to be maintained for a long time yet. Most major events until the end of the summer have been cancelled or postponed, but in reality – as Oktoberfest and COP26 have proven – it is unlikely any major events will take place for the rest of the year.
There is still so much we don’t know, not least about immunity. But it is clear that even if you do build up sufficient immunity from infection, in most places we have not seen the rates of infection that would lead to overall or “herd immunity”. And, as I noted last week, we are also probably a long way off a vaccine.
So, even as those lockdowns ease, it does not mean a push to get through a crowded bar to enjoy your favourite drink, cheering on your team with your mates in a sold-out stadium or a dance with a random stranger in a summer festival field.
Fears over a second wave, a second spike in deaths, will mean getting used to a very different type of normal, the new normal, in 2020.
Darren McCaffrey is Euronews’ political editor.
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