Like last year, the Covid-19 took advantage of holidaymakers and the increase in mobility to spread this summer across Europe. Update with Catherine Smallwood, responsible for emergency situations at the WHO European office.
The scenario seems identical to that of last year. After the health situation improved this spring in Europe, the Covid-19 regained ground from the end of June. In Catalonia, then in the rest of Spain, in the south of France and gradually towards the north and east of the continent, as shown in our animated map below created from data from the European office of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Some differences are emerging compared to the summer of 2020. The United Kingdom, hit before continental Europe by the Delta variant, notably faced a fourth wave at the beginning of July.
The virus likes to travel
The regions popular with summer vacationers were therefore once again among the first where the virus multiplied. They probably favored its distribution in Europe. Because the Covid-19 likes to travel.
A study published on June 7 in the journal Nature shed light on the role of tourists in the summer of 2020. Researchers have found that a variant, originally found only in Spain, has been imported by holidaymakers to hundreds of regions across the continent. This variant gradually became dominant in several countries, propelling the 2nd wave.
Tourism, the Covid-19 “accelerator”
Did history repeat itself this summer? “The situation was slightly different,” said Catherine Smallwood, emergency manager at the WHO European office. “Spain was not the engine of the spread of the virus. This year, it is very linked to the Delta variant, which we saw appear very early in the United Kingdom and in several countries in the north of it. Europe”.
“Tourism has above all played a role of accelerator, of amplifier”, and the mobility of the summer has allowed the virus to move easily, she continues. In addition, vacation activities, such as going to parties and bars, increase the risk of disease transmission. “This sector has made a lot of efforts, especially hotels which are playing on their reputation, but the virus remains very difficult to control and I do not think it is possible to have an open tourism industry without increasing contamination.”
The consequences quickly appeared in Switzerland during the summer. In several French-speaking cantons, health authorities estimated that a quarter of people who fell ill at the end of July had contracted the virus abroad.
But according to Catherine Smallwood, “the virus, especially the Delta variant, would have come to Europe with or without tourism”. The reopening of society as a whole has allowed it to regain ground, with more mobility and gatherings, large and small. “Including major football tournaments and concerts,” she said.
Less impact on hospitals
As in the summer of 2020, the easing of measures was therefore followed by a resumption of the epidemic. Have the same mistakes been made twice? “I would not speak of error but of choice”, nuance the person in charge of the WHO. “Policymakers looked at the risks and had to strike a balance between economy, health, feasibility of measures and their longevity. The opening has increased the circulation of the virus, but it has not had the same impact on health systems than last year thanks to immunization. “
Since the end of the summer holidays, the situation has stabilized in Western Europe. Now Catherine Smallwood’s gaze turns to the schools. And to countries, especially in Eastern Europe, where the vaccination rate is still low, while autumn is approaching.
“We saw the consequences of the Delta variant this summer with many deaths in Russia and other European countries where vaccination coverage is still low,” she concludes, calling on European states to be more fair so that all have access to the vaccine.
>> See also our animated map on the second wave in Europe: How the second wave of Covid-19 overwhelmed Europe