The fact that Europe is facing a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic heading into the colder months is no surprise, but the speed of its resurgence has been uncanny.
Over the last month, many European nations have seen per capita rates of infection eclipsing those of the U.S., which has been criticized globally for its relatively lax handling of the pandemic and Thursday recorded a record 160,000 cases in a single day.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that Europe had largely gotten things under control.
Case totals plummeted as a result of aggressive spring lockdowns that sent the continent’s economy into hibernation. During the summer, Europeans were prodded to return to somewhat normal activities, eating out and taking Mediterranean holidays.
The honeymoon ended this month as countries like France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom adopted fresh lockdowns to fight a steep rise in cases that has threatened to overwhelm hospitals, pushing death tolls up to levels not seen since May.
France began in October by enacting curfews and bar closures in Paris and other hotspots before realizing this would not be enough to control the spread.
With the virus running rampant, the government on Oct. 28 ordered restaurants, bars and other public-facing businesses to close. Citizens are required to stay home except for essential activities like work, exercise and grocery shopping. Travel between regions is banned, and a special passes are once again required to leave home.
But France is taking a more “human” tack to preserve the economy and people’s mental well-being, said Vincent Hommeril, consul general of France in Atlanta, during a virtual COVID Consular Conversation Nov 5.
Schools remain open, as do most companies. Elder care facility visits are allowed, as are elective medical procedures, unlike in the spring. European borders are open, even as France remains closed to non-European travelers, Mr. Hommeril said, adding that there has been little public resistance to the reinstatement of restrictions.
“Now I think every French person accepts the reality of the second wave. And the medical doctors tell us that it may be worse than the first wave,” he said.
Of course, treatment of COVID-19 has drastically improved, as has testing capacity. French officials initially set the lockdown to expire after a month, evaluating the situation every 15 days. On Nov. 9, the country saw a staggering 90,000 new cases of COVID-19. France has logged 1.9 million total cases, the fourth highest total in the world. The government said this week that the average had decreased by 16 percent since the restrictions were put in but that they would remain at least through Dec. 1.
For her part, German Consul General Heike Fuller acknowledged that a vocal minority has protested Germany’s own limited lockdown, but she cited a poll that said nearly 80 percent of Germans understand its necessity.
“I think for a government that is a quite comfortable majority to to to continue this path,” she said.
She attributed this partly to the scientific approach espoused from the beginning by Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, who has also pleaded with people to wear masks and follow distancing guidelines. In announcing the latest national measures, Ms. Merkel said short-term cooperation meant a chance to “save Christmas.”
“I have not experienced Chancellor Merkel so often making press statements and addressing the Germans as as a nation saying, ‘Please, this is our joint effort. And we have to go through this.’ But I think it’s a wise approach,” Dr. Fuller said during the Global Atlanta-led discussion sponsored by the law firm of Miller & Martin PLLC.
And in some ways necessary: Germany is a federal country where “she cannot just say, ‘Bavaria do this, Hamburg do that.’ We have to find a consensus.”
Germany was lauded during the first wave for its relatively low death rate, which some attributed to its strict restrictions on group gatherings, in spite of the fact that its official closures of activities like school and factories were more limited than in some other places.
Ms. Fuller shrugged off the idea that Germany and other nations reopened their economies too early.
“I’m careful to really jump to that. Because if I see the numbers here, in my current host country, and see the numbers we had during the summer in Europe, I think it was justified to loosen up,” she said, noting the imperative to balance civil rights versus safety, as well as the need to limit the economic damage. “What is, in my opinion, not okay was how some individual people behaved.”
Germany hit a daily record 23,542 cases Friday, diminishing hopes that partial lockdown measures would be lifted by the end of November, Reuters reported. Germany’s case total since March now stands at around 750,000.
In their own work, Dr. Fuller and Mr. Hommeril said that while the social distancing measures, event postponements and general shift to virtual work has been challenging, some bright spots have emerged: Connecting with organizations throughout the Southeast has been easier. In moving its annual France-Atlanta series online, the French consulate was able to broaden participation both from speakers and attendees, Mr. Hommeril said.
Digital may stick around as a tool for broader outreach even after the pandemic subsides, but the agreed that there is no substitute for personal interaction in diplomacy — or for sharing French and German food and wine.
Both consuls said companies from their countries operating in the Southeast had recovered from the initial shocks and had largely learned how to navigate the processes of accessing government aid and gaining exceptions to travel bans for key personnel. Many Germans hold dual citizenship have been rushing to the consulate to renew their passports, which enable them to travel without incident, Dr. Fuller said.
But overall, the mood is less dire.
“All in all, we find now that it’s not so horrific, the results of the pandemic, so we are confident that really, the economy here will recover fully in a short period of time,” Mr. Hommeril said.
Dr. Fuller ventured that German firms may now more concerned about the state of transatlantic trade policy than the immediate effects of COVID-19.
Trade has been a constant irritant during the tumultuous period in U.S.-Germany relations under President Trump, who often threatened sweeping tariffs on German car makers and parts suppliers — a blow that would have resounded widely throughout the Southeast U.S.
“I will dare to say that the pandemic is not the first factor to that comes into my mind. If there might be hiccups with our trade relations, I think that has reasons that are decided upon in Washington,” Dr. Fuller said.
The online interview was held Nov. 5, two days after the U.S. presidential election but before media organizations had called the race for Democrat Joe Biden. German officials had warned of a constitutional crisis over President Trump’s groundless assertions of electoral fraud, encouraging the U.S. to live up to its democratic ideals.
Dr. Fuller wouldn’t take these admonitions further, but she did hint that while the rhetoric of the last four years had been harsh, changing presidents wouldn’t necessarily fix underlying bilateral issues.
“The tone is one thing, the issues on the table are something else,” she said.
Both diplomats said they enjoyed watching the electoral process play out in Georgia, which became a bona fide battleground state and garnered national attention that won’t shrink away anytime soon with two runoff elections set for Jan. 5 that will the balance of power in the Senate.
The state on Friday began a hand recount of more than 5 million ballots in the presidential race just as the Associated Press finally called it for Mr. Biden, who led by 14,000 votes, a margin of 0.3 percent.